South of the Border: Willie Miller: Sugarbeeter/Game Warden in the Sweet Grass Hills


September 9, 2020

Stopped on a two track with the Sweet Grass Hills in the background, Montana Game Warden Willie Miller checks land maps via a computer from his pickup. Miller started his career with Montana's FWP in March, 2018. A native of Chinook, he graduated from CHS in 2010. He and his family (wife Jordan and son Rhett) live in Chester.

After moving to Whitlash I asked the postmaster, "Who's the Game Warden up here?" thinking that might be an interesting story since big game hunting was underway. She said, "A guy named Willie Miller" and handed me his business card. Then I remembered Willie, he's the youngest of the eight children of Perry and Pauly Miller in Chinook.

On opening day of the 2020 upland bird season I rode with Willie as he toured part of the East Butte complex checking and visiting with hunters in the field. We ended our tour at the Broken Mountain Campground west of Whitlash where a group of hunters were camping. Here's some of what I learned about Willie's path to his position as Game Warden and his work for the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Department.

Willie Miller became a Montana Game Warden in March, 2018

Locals may recall Willie as an outstanding wrestler at Chinook High where he graduated in 2010. He earned a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice from MSU-Northern in 2016. At Northern he wrestled, earning All American status and a national ranking of fourth among small colleges.

Now living in Chester, he and his wife, Jordan, have a 16 month old son, Rhett. Jordan is the Athletic Director for CJI High School in Chester, coaches volleyball and is the payroll clerk for Liberty County. While living in Chinook, Jordan was the assistant coach for the girls' basketball team.

Regarding his career as a game warden, Willie said, "I've always liked learning about law. I'd rather study rules and regulations than read a best-selling novel." In high school he was "somewhat interested" in being a game warden and after graduating college got very interested. He explained, "It seemed an ideal career that combined my love of the law and my passion for hunting and fishing ."

The FWP's hiring process has multiple steps. Applicants are screened to make certain they meet the basic requirements to be a game warden. Selected candidates then spend three days in Helena. They take a lengthy test using rules and regulations books to answer questions about game, fish and parks law.

The future game wardens also do the Montana Physical Agilities Test (IMPAT), did some psychological tests, were interviewed by a panel of working wardens and supervisors and were given a physical examination.

The candidates' performances were scored and a background check was conducted. The top scorers were then 'conditionally hired' meaning they were offered an opening when one occurred. Willie was one of five offered a position a few weeks later.

He recalled, "I was at a wrestling tournament when I got the call offering the job."

His is a "new, old position" for an area including Liberty, Toole, Pondera and Glacier Counties. A similar position was eliminated about 25 years ago. Willie said, "The department realized the amount of activity required an additional warden." Because of a vacancy he currently is also working the northern part of Chouteau County. Recalling the offer for his current position he said, "Truth is I was delighted to be assigned to a posting on the Hi-line."

As sworn Peace Officers new wardens attend the 12-week basic POST program at the Montana Police Academy. New wardens then work with a seasoned warden known as a Field Training Officer (FTO). A new warden accompanies their FTO to observe and learn the duties of the job. Willie added, "One important part of the FTO's work is to note and help remove deficiencies a new warden might have. Not being a bird hunter, I couldn't identify many upland birds and waterfowl. My FTO designed exercises to help overcome that lack of experience with fowl." The final part of the FTO's work is the "shadow stage." The FTO, in civilian clothing, accompanies the new warden as the new hire interacts with sportsmen. Willie's work with his FTO was completed in about six months which is typical.

"There's a lot to do and a lot of places to be"-Willie Miller

The average area a Montana warden covers is about 2,200 square miles (For geography enthusiasts, that's an area bigger than Rhode Island but not quite as large as Delaware). Basically, most duties of a game warden are either about enforcing rules and regulations or educating sportsmen about the rules and acceptable behaviors. Willie said, "I see hunting and fishing as a privilege, not necessarily a right. I'm not trying to take a sportsman's privilege away, I'm trying to help them understand their responsibilities, follow the rules and have a good outdoor experience."

part of the job is understanding and dealing with concerns of the landowners." That can include attending public meetings where land use issues will be discussed and representing FWP at public gatherings. Willie loves to visit with people and that helps him keep in touch with the landowners.

He really likes working with youth groups. "I feel," he explained, "to maintain the traditions of hunting and fishing in Montana we have to educate the next generation." Noting that there has been some decline in hunting license sales in the state, he said, "I'm not sure what that means, it might just be a cyclical thing. I do know in Montana we have some of the best hunting and fishing resources and I believe there will always be interest by sportsmen to use those resources."

Looking to the future

Willie Miller loves being a game warden. He said, "I love what I'm doing, especially the variety and a chance to continually learn new things. I could see myself being happy doing what I'm doing now for the rest of my time with FWP. I like the area and I like the folks I work with." After a time with the department wardens can request a transfer to openings in other areas, but he's not thinking along those lines just now.

And speaking of lots to do and places to be, Willie told me, "I'm coaching a youth football team in Chester. We need to be headed back there in time for practice." And thus ended the first day of the 2020 upland bird season for Sugarbeeter/Game Warden Willie Miller.

Game Warden Willie Miller checks a Sharp-tailed Grouse harvested by a Utah hunter near Whitlash on the first day of upland bird season. This is Miller's third season as a Montana Game Warden. He graduated from MSU-Northern in 2016 and joined FWP in the spring of 2018.


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