|Call of the wildlife|
|Wednesday, December 28, 2011|
Whether in forests or fields, on the waters of Old Hickory Lake or driving the back roads, eagle-eyed Lt. Jim Hooperhas been a man on a mission for the past 23 years.
Working for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) as a wildlife officer, a job once known as game warden, Hooper tackles many tasks, but his main role remains enforcing state hunting and fishing regulations.
“For some people it’s a job. For some people it’s a calling, a way of life, and I guess I’m the latter. It defines who and what I am,” said Hooper, 51, the married father of two grown children, who lives in Mt. Juliet.
“There are kids who have grown up just seeing this green uniform, green truck and me. I do love what I do. It is a passion. I love the job. It has been fun. I don’t remember anytime in 23 years waking up in the morning and saying, ‘Damn, I got to go to work today.’ It’s been a good ride.”
For Hooper there is no such thing as a normal day at work.
“I go get in the truck. I got an idea of what I’m going to do, but what you end up getting into that day, you never know. The job is probably 70 percent game enforcement and the other 30 percent all these other duties that come along.”
A typical week likely will have him going on hunting patrols and handling complaints from landowners about trespassers or property damage. But, depending on the season, he also may be performing small-game bag checks or doing fishing and boating enforcement. And there’s court duty and media relations.
“It has everything to do with hunting and fishing and boating. We cover all aspects of all three, including wildlife management, hunter education and public relations programs. We’re in the hunting and fishing business, but we’re in the people business. Eighty percent of what we do is people management, dealing with people,” Hooper said.
“My reputation is of being an old hard tail,“ he admitted. “There’s a right way to treat people, as my daddy said, ‘I won’t suffer fools lightly.’ You treat people with respect as much as they will let you. You treat them with dignity and 90 percent of the time they will say, ‘Thank you,’ though they don’t like getting a ticket.”
As for the primary hunting violations in Wilson County, Hooper said the big three are hunting in a baited field, hunting from a road and trespassing.
“We’re full-time government law officers. Our enforcement authority is probably broader than any other law officer in the state,” said Hooper, who can go onto private property at any time without a warrant to investigate.
The stout outdoorsman, who chews Red Man, has gray hair as well as gray moustache and goatee. He dresses in green or camouflage and like other wildlife officers wears a Glock pistol on his hip and carries handcuffs. He drives a 4-wheel drive green Tahoe with a GPS but knows the county like his front yard.
“I been the game warden here in Wilson County for the last 22 years,” said Hooper, who was recently promoted to lieutenant Region II’s District 21, thus he supervises officers in a dozen counties.
“I’m a game warden first and a supervisor and administrator second. A lot of people think I’ve been sitting behind a desk. The rumor of my demise has been greatly exaggerated,” he said as a grin sneaks across his face.
While he does have additional responsibilities, he spends the majority of the time in his Tahoe, which he calls his office, driving about 25,000 miles annually as he patrols the 550 square miles of Wilson County.
“I’ve walked a lot of it. I walk ground every week that I’ve never been on,” he said. “Just because you ain’t seen me, don’t mean that I ain’t seen you.”
The official job title change from game warden to wildlife officer came in 1974 to reinforce the idea that TWRA officers handle more chores than giving out tickets for game and fish violations.
Hooper still prefers the old title saying, “You can change the name of a garbage man to sanitation officer, but he’s still the garbage man.”
In the meantime, Wilson County has a new wildlife officer in training.
“We’ve got a new kid, Dustin Buttram, who’s gonna be a good one. I think he’s gonna make a fine officer,” Hooper said.
Buttram, 24, who grew up in Monterey and holds a degree in wildlife and fisheries from Tennessee Tech, said, “This is the only thing I knew to do. It kind of came naturally to me. There really was no other option out there for me.”
The young officer has been learning the lay of the land for the past two months underneath the guidance of Hooper, whom he said is “helpful, stern and effective in what he does.”
Hooper, who spends 95 percent of his time in Wilson County, has trained almost all of the new officers who have come to work in District 21 for the past 15 years. That district includes all of the counties north of I-40 from Smith County to Dickson County as well as Cannon and Rutherford counties.
Across the state TWRA employs about 148 county wildlife officers, all men but for five women. New officers must attend law enforcement training at the police academy in Donelson, spend eight weeks in TWRA classes and then ride eight to 12 weeks with a training officer. They serve a probation period of one year.
“There’s not a lot of turnover,” said Hooper, who was born and raised in Tellico Plains. “You either retire out or die out.”
“From a young age, Daddy put me in the woods. Mom tells the story of how I was too young to walk, he would carry me. I grew up hunting and fishing, that and playing ball all year round,” said Hooper, an avid bass fisherman and turkey and duck hunter.
He did not decide to become a wildlife officer until he was in his mid-20s. Before enrolling at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he earned a degree in forestry and wildlife management, Hooper worked at a bank in his hometown.
“I hated every minute of it. I repoed cars,” he said with disgust. “I hated the suit and tie and working in the office. My wife said, ‘Why don’t you go back to school and find something you want to do?’ I got a lot of support from her and some swift kicks in the butt, and I got my degree.”
Once hired by TWRA, Hooper took to it like a rabbit being thrown into a briar patch. “It was an easy transfer, a short learning curve. I can’t imagine being anything else,” he said.
“I was brought along by a gentleman named Bob Bass. I came in here full of piss and vinegar like a bull in a china shop. Bob taught me the business.”
Hooper said that career wildlife officers go through three stages.
“The first 10 years you’re running wide open and learning the policy. The second 10 you’re at the top of your game. The third 10 is transitional. I’m the past and present.
“This is a young man’s game. Dustin is the future. My job is to teach that kid what it takes to be a game warden, the attitude and the demeanor. I’ve got 10 years left, he’s got 30.”
Used to be, wildlife officers took mandatory retirement at 55. Today it is at age 60, but administrative officers can hang in until age 62.
As for the biggest change that Hooper has seen since he pinned on the badge, he said, “There’s not as much emphasis in hunting and fishing by the general public as there was 23 years ago. There are so many other things that kids do with their leisure time, so there is a decreasing number of young hunters and fishermen.
“Here in Wilson County, you think about what it was like 20 years ago and the build-up we’ve had. Kids live in these massive subdivisions. They don’t have the places to hunt like they did.”
Hooper is keenly aware that those who do hunt must respect the rights of those who own property, saying, “Your rights as a hunter and my rights as a landowner are symbiotic. We’ve got to do a better job of taking care of our landowners or there is not a place to hunt.”
The thing he enjoys most abut his work is purely and simply the freedom.
“Most of us are type-A personalities, self motivated, self driven,” he said of wildlife officers. “They do this job because that’s what they do. They set their own schedule. Everybody works weekends because that’s when everybody recreates.
“The job requires certain sacrifices. In the last five weeks, I’ve probably averaged 90 hours a week. You go home when the job is done.
“Your family sacrifices. You get one weekend off a month. It’s tough on your family, tough on young officers and young officers’ wives. You only have one chance to be a dad.”
Over the past two months, deer season duties have snared most of Hooper’s working hours. But the job changes with the seasons. During summer months, he spends a lot time in a boat, primarily patrolling Old Hickory Lake and Percy Priest Lake as he checks for fishing licenses, boat registrations and making sure enough life jackets are onboard.
“There are lot more boats in the water now than used to be,” said Hooper, who has seen his fair share of boating tragedies, including children killed in water-related accidents, memories from which nightmares are born.
He gives out about 100 tickets a year for boating, fishing and big-game violations.
“We are quality over quantity when it comes to violations. Wildlife violations are hard to make. We have to see it ourselves or have a witness willing to go to court and testify or sign a warrant,” he said.
“All wildlife laws are misdemeanors. All carry the potential of jail time. For all wildlife violations in Wilson County you have to go before a judge.”
As to the degree of penalties, hunting on land without permission is a $50 fine; hunting over bait may be up $500 as well as confiscation of weapons and loss of hunting privileges; and shooting from a public road may be up to a $2,500 fine and loss of weapons and hunting license.
Hooper rarely lets a violator off the hook. He and his best buddy have hunted and fished across the United States for nearly 20 years. They met in a baited field where Hooper caught him hunting dove and ticketed him.
TWRA Spokesman Doug Markham said, “I have never talked to anyone who knows Jim Hooper that they don't compliment his work or pay him respect. That says a lot for someone whose job requirements sometimes means he has to write citations for hunting, fishing or boating violations.
“He is a typical wildlife officer in that he loves the outdoors. He is an excellent fisherman, but he is also an outstanding wildlife officer who has a good working relationship with the outdoors community in Wilson County,”
Hooper’s occupation is not one for the faint-hearted. While there has yet to be a Tennessee wildlife officer killed in the line of duty, on average about five officers are assaulted annually.
“Game warden is one of top five or 10 most dangerous jobs,” Hooper said. “Everyone we meet is armed. People I don’t know, know me.”
He recollected the case of a notorious road shooter in a nearby county.
“He was a bad man. I got into where he was running. We set a dummy deer up, and we caught this guy shooting from the road. Later on I ticketed him for hunting on a revoked license. He was put in jail for that.
“Real threats were made on my life. Story has it he was talked out of it two or three times. He crawled up into a deer stand and blew himself up with dynamite. He and I never had a cross word, but he intended to take me with him when he died.
“He was a man not to be messed with,” said Hooper, who lived to tell the tale.
Twenty-three years deep into his career, even with the long hours and weather conditions that range from scorching hot to sub-freezing, Jim Hooper vows that he has enjoyed every bit of it. There are fringe benefits.
“The funniest thing is working the dummy deer and seeing the expression on peoples’ faces when we catch them for violating. That ‘Oh, crap’ look on their face is priceless.
“The catch is still fun. It’s kind of like fishing or turkey hunting. If the time comes when I don’t get that excitement or get that adrenaline rush, then it’s time to quit,” said Wilson County’s No. 1 enforcer in the woods and on the waters, a man proud to be called game warden.
by Ken Beck