Review: Stephen Dewald, “Under a Poacher’s Moon”

Interested to see what it is like to be a game warden in Wisconsin? In the dangers a warden faces, the moments that leave them shaking their heads, and the friendly connections a warden makes? This book’s stories provide a chance to see that. (Dewald published a sequel, Under a Poacher’s Moon 2, in 2013, which promises more of the same.)under a poacher's moon

Dewald, a warden with the Wisconsin D.N.R. from 1990 to 2011, has a strong sense of sympathy for those who use resources properly. He is a conservationist who seeks wise use of our resources, particularly game species. Thus, Dewald is disappointed when an animal is “taken without fair chase, without respect,” (20) and the book demonstrates his efforts to enforce good sportsmanship. He defends those whose property is damaged by poachers (sometimes landowners grow afraid of those who invade their property to hunt illegally). His sense of justice extends to inclusion; he wants to make sure all residents have a fair chance to take part in hunting, and critiques those who he fears would limit access (fearing “European style hunting where only the wealthy will have the opportunity to hunt.”) (135)

The key focus in the book is on the challenges that a warden faces. (On the other hand, Dewald does not spend a lot of time describing the nature he encounters – his attention as a warden is elsewhere.) Might a warden get shot? What kind of effort does a warden have to put in to ‘stake out’ a suspected poacher? (Also, what kind of effort do poachers put in to deny their responsibility for… what the warden has just witnessed evidence of! You’ll shake your head, too.) What are the dilemmas a warden faces, and how do they respond to them?

This book sheds light on tensions as communities in a democracy determine shared standards for using nature recreationally. I found it a little unsettling to realize just how often people try to evade game and safety laws. Despite his concern for justice, this is a field of law enforcement where there’s still a fair amount of sympathy for the guilty, too, given the ample evidence he provides of leniency the legal system offers these criminals. The leniency sometimes is intended to develop good will in a community for the future, for managing land use cannot rely on wardens, it must include a fair amount of self-enforcement.

Although hunting and fishing are the main sources of his anecdotes, Dewald demonstrates that wardens have a lot of other concerns – particularly involving boats and boater safety. (He expresses frustration at legislators, legislation, and political interest groups which he feels interfere with the develop of property safety standards for boating and snowmobiling.) He also discusses how some use the outdoors as a dump –polluting their own water supply. Dewald also played another role in government, working on legislation to help address issues for which a solution had not yet been found.

The book has 36 short chapters, so focus is on relatively quick presentations of stories. Many chapters function as snapshots like a crime show might present, ‘mysteries’ for wardens to solve. Sometimes, there is a lot of tension as he confronts poachers. At other moments, the tone is fairly light-hearted, often when he makes light of the failed efforts criminals put in to attempt to cover up their actions. The primary foci of the book are on the perspective of the warden, and the work they do to identify and arrest criminals – this is a good read for those interested in hearing those stories.

Under a Poacher’s Moon: Stories of a Wisconsin Game Warden, Steven Dewald (2012)

About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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