Warden of the Jackson Hole wilderness

04 Sep 2023

Game warden Jon Stephens spends weeks in the backcountry to regulate Wyoming’s conservation efforts

Summer 2023

Written By: Emmie Gocke | Images: Mark Gocke

In the fall of 1899, Albert Nelson saddled up a bay mountain horse and a string of sure-footed mules and took to the Gros Ventre wilderness as Wyoming’s first game warden. His task was exceedingly difficult: to apprehend poachers alone on horseback in an enormous wilderness.

Albert lived in a time when many of Wyoming’s big game populations were on the precipice of extinction. Unchecked market hunting for hides or sport and indiscriminate slaughter by settlers decimated the once boundless herds, making his task incredibly weighty. Thanks to conservation efforts, Wyoming’s game herds today have substantially recovered and the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole remain much like they were in 1899 — vast, wild and breathtaking.

Albert knew the plummeting valleys and sheer granite spines like the ridges of his own hand. As a retired range rider, an early homesteader in Jackson Hole, and an outfitting guide, Albert’s “intimate knowledge of the country and backcountry skills [were] the best credentials in those days” to recommend him for the job, writes retired warden Jay Lawson. Like many of the early wildlife conservationists of that time, the avid outdoorsman and hunter relished the intimate connection he found with wildlife and the rugged Wyoming wilderness, and hoped to preserve that connection for generations to come as a game warden.

Over 120 years later, Jackson north district game warden Jon Stephens follows in Albert’s tracks every summer and fall with a saddle horse and a string of pack mules to check anglers, hunters and outfitters for proper compliance to game laws. These multi-day backcountry trips are Jon’s favorite part of the job and remind him of the deep love of wildlife and wilderness that inspired him to become a warden. The wilderness areas of Jon’s district are some “of the few places left where you can get away and see nature, wilderness, wildlife in a true wild setting — experiencing the true ruggedness and remoteness of our country without the overwhelming influence of people,” he says.

Using horses and mules to access these areas is not simply a nod to tradition, but remains a necessity for safely covering the vast country of Jon’s district, which extends from the southern boundary of Yellowstone to the continental divide and the high peaks of the Gros Ventre. Jon didn’t grow up with horses and had to learn the subtle arts of horsemanship and packing on the job.

“It’s a little overwhelming at the beginning,” he recalls, “but once you get some of that important experience under your belt, and you’re competent, it’s such a great tool ... you can go so much further and live so much more comfortably on these trips.”

The keen senses of these animals and their sheer size detect and deter the many apex predators that roam Wyoming’s wilderness zones. Jon says being alone in grizzly country can be “a little eerie.”

“Especially in the fall when bears are more active, looking for food to fatten up for winter hibernation, a stage referred to as hyperphagia,” he says. “Due to snow and other environmental factors on the landscape, they are often traveling the main forest service trails because it’s quicker and easier to get around.”

Jon encounters grizzlies face to face on horseback multiple times a year, but has yet to encounter an aggressive bear. Like people, Jon says some of his horses deal with these high-adrenaline encounters a “lot better than others.”

Spending so much time in the backcountry also allows wardens “to pass on the latest trail conditions or how the wildlife are, or how the hunting and fishing is” to the many Wyoming residents who enjoy the state’s wildlife and wilderness. “I think our constituent base expects and appreciates seeing us in the backcountry,” Jon says. While Wyomingites proudly continue to access the wilderness with horses and pack strings, “it’s incredibly important that we as an agency maintain those traditions as well.” Over 120 years after Albert Nelson made the first game warden patrols in the Gros Ventre Wilderness, Jon traverses the same mountain trails with the same view — and the love of wildlife and wilderness from the back of a good saddle horse.

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