MEDICINE LAKE – Jeff Darrah is on high alert as he weaves his way through the new crop of six-foot-high lodgepole pine that grows on a ridge above Medicine Lake.
As the edge of the lake in the Sapphire Mountains comes into view through the bleached skeletons of a forest burned over in 2000, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden captain stops frequently to scan the shoreline with his binoculars.
It is two days before the lake officially opens to fishermen, and its nice population of cutthroat trout coupled with a remote location has a way of making some folks forget about the law.
It’s a place that Darrah has come to often over the past 26 years to make sure that no lines get wet early.
This time is different.
This time will be last that he’ll be here with a badge.
The longtime game warden plans to officially end his career on Friday, July 13.
“You might sit here for two days and get eaten by mosquitoes and never write a ticket,” Darrah says, as he settles in atop a convenient log. “But then there are those other days.”
When you consider how many game wardens there are in the state of Montana and just how large of an area they are expected to cover, there’s something to be said about having a reputation for being just about everywhere.
“It’s why we come to places like this,” he said. “People tell their friends. Word gets around.”
It’s the part of the job that Darrah is going to miss most.
Being outdoors. Meeting people. Doing what’s right for wildlife.
“Something tells you it’s time to go,” Darrah says of his decision to leave. Behind the binoculars, his eyes scan the camp that’s pitched just off the shoreline. There’s no sign of anyone around.
“I’m going to miss this, that’s for sure,” he said, as he stops to listen to the soft wind blowing through the trees. For a moment, he thought maybe he’d heard voices coming from the trail below.
After a few moments of incredible quiet, Darrah starts to talk – in little more than a whisper – about all he’s seen and done in a career mostly spent out of doors.
So much has changed from the day he first pulled on his warden’s shirt and cap.
“The wolf issue is eating our lunch,” he said. “It’s so huge and most of the general public doesn’t understand what it means. In some cases, wolves are having a huge impact on our wildlife herds. In other places, they’ve just become a built-in excuse for why someone didn’t get their elk.”
The politics of wildlife have taken their toll on Darrah. It’s one of the reasons that he’s decided to try something else while he’s still young enough to do that.
To turn your back on a job that you love is never easy.
For a man who grew up in the heart of Iowa, with his face always pointed west, becoming a game warden in Montana was a dream come true.
“A big-game hunt was something that we’d save up for all year long,” Darrah said. “I took some trips to Colorado and Wyoming with my dad. I always wanted to live in the West.”
When he announced he was moving to Missoula, his family and friends were sure it was a lark. They told him he’d never make it and that he’d be back in a month.
Instead he got a job and put himself through school. When FWP opened up a warden trainee position, he put his name in the hat and was accepted.
That eventually led to a job in Glasgow where his captain announced he had good news and bad. The good news was there was a girl for every tree out in eastern Montana. The bad news was there weren’t any trees.
For someone in love with the outdoors, that first job couldn’t have been much better.
Darrah saw for the very first time sage hens strutting on their leks, areas where they congregate to court one another. He found buffalo skulls on the nearly uninhabited prairies. And he spent long days alone with his dog on Fort Peck Lake before it became a popular fishing destination.
When that stint ended, a new adventure began in Philipsburg in 1988. Darrah was promoted to sergeant in Butte in 1992 and moved to Missoula to become warden captain in 1998, making his home in Lone Rock.
At that final post, he supervised the 11 wardens charged with covering seven counties in western Montana. His department’s budget was $1.2 million.
All of those management duties aren’t what he talks about.
Instead, there were all the stories of a life spent in the woods. Those times he helped local law enforcement at a drowning or automobile accident. The big cases he helped on. And all those undercover jobs.
And then there were the two fishermen on Rock Creek that he and the film crew for the show “Wardens” confronted one day. Regulations say anglers can’t use bait on the blue ribbon stream.
When the two arrived, the lines of both men mysteriously snagged at the same moment. The men denied they were using night crawlers as bait.
When Darrah flipped over a flat rock next to a beer can and a Styrofoam container filled with worms presented itself, one of the men exclaimed: “Those aren’t my worms.”
“People are people,” he said. “I’ve met all kinds, but the best part of this job has been the people. They never fail to surprise you.”
There’s always been a need for wardens willing to stand up to those who believe that wildlife are theirs for the taking. Darrah counts himself fortunate that he never had to draw his gun in his entire career.
But there’s been a scuffle or two.
“A lot of them don’t think that breaking a wildlife law is really all that bad,” he said. “These are people who would never even consider going out and robbing a bank.”
“Yet they wouldn’t think twice about going out and poaching a deer or taking an extra elk,” Darrah said. “They think it’s not hurting anybody and that, if anything, it’s just taking something from the government.”
When they are caught, Darrah believes that this state’s wardens do a good job of not letting the situation escalate.
“For the most part, it was something that I took a lot of pride in,” he said. “I could write a ticket and while that person may not be my best friend, they understood that I was doing what needed to be done.”
He’ll miss that.
“I’ve been a game warden since 1982,” he said. “Sometimes I’m in different places and I hear someone say: ‘There goes the game warden.’ That’s kind of cool, in a way.”
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300, ext. 30, or by email at email@example.com.