Meet Texas Game Warden Raj Ataya

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Raj Ataya began his career as a Texas Game Warden a little later than most.

“In my late thirties, I decided I wanted to be a game warden,” said Ataya. “I applied to become a Texas Game Warden cadet, got in on my first try and graduated from the Game Warden Training Center in 2017. My first duty station was in Orange County, which is very close to home. I’ve been here ever since.”

Ataya’s experience was a little unusual because the vast majority of those who are accepted to become a game warden cadet don’t get in on their first try. Most years, about 90% of Texas Game Warden cadets have tried at least once, and sometimes several times before being selected for the highly competitive training academy.

Ataya’s life experiences are also atypical for most game wardens. He graduated from Baylor with a degree in international business and entrepreneurship and built a successful business involving restaurants and real estate right out of college. He is still a partner in the business, but no longer involved in the day-to-day work that keeps it running.

“When I was young, I wanted to be in law enforcement, but I put that dream aside after college. After I got my business established, I started thinking about law enforcement again and right about that time, I met Texas Game Warden Colt Crawford at the gym. He became my workout buddy, then best friend, and he took me on several ride-alongs to show me what he did. That sealed the deal and I decided to go for it.”

Ataya’s dedication to his new career is evidenced in everything he does, including returning to school to earn a master’s degree in criminal justice from Lamar University, a feat he accomplished while working fulltime as a Texas Game Warden. He loves just about everything about his job, especially his duties related to water safety.

“I really like being on the water, and I enjoy operating all the different types of vessels that we have. Airboats, patrol boats, surface drive boats, flat-bottom boats and SAFE boats; we have it all over here. I also really enjoy being connected to the local community here. That’s a big priority for Texas Game Wardens.”

Ataya’s work has been recognized at the local, state and even national levels. In May he was honored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission as the 2021 National Association of State Boating Law Administration (NASBLA) Texas Boating Law Enforcement Officer of the Year. This award recognizes an officer who has made outstanding contributions to the field of boating law enforcement. He won NASBLA’s Southern Region Officer of the year in July and is one of three finalists for the top national award, which will be announced soon.

Ataya is plugged into his community and is very appreciative of the support Texas Game Wardens receive from local citizens and businesses through Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation’s Gear Up for Game Wardens program. Gear Up for Game Wardens raises private funds for specialty gear that helps Texas Game Wardens do their jobs more effectively. A recent fundraiser in Beaumont raised more than $100,000 that was put to use immediately. Gear Up funds were used to purchase a Minn Kota Raptor, which allows Ataya to drop an anchor when he ties on to another boat for a law enforcement check.

“I’ve used it more than 50 times in the last couple of months. It anchors both boats in place so we don’t have to worry about drifting while we are making a check. It’s a wonderful piece of equipment that helps us do our jobs safely.”

While Ataya spends a lot of time on the water, his other specialty is as a drone operator. He is called in often to assist in search and rescue and other law enforcement operations.

“Gear Up has been a godsend because there’s no way we can keep up with the fast-changing technology. Thanks to these private donations through Gear Up, we have access to the latest thermal drone technology.”

As Ataya continues to do the job he loves, he is heartened by the support Texas Game Wardens receive from his community through Gear Up for Game Wardens.

“It’s really amazing and it gives us a real good feeling to know that support is there. We’ve got a very special relationship with these folks, and we’re proud to serve them as Texas Game Wardens.”

Gear Up for Game Wardens Provides the Latest Drone Technology for Texas Game Wardens

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Texas Game Wardens strive to use the latest and best gear and technology in their mission to serve the people of Texas. But outfitting more than 500 Texas Game Wardens with more than standard-issue equipment is a daunting task. That’s why Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) created Gear Up for Game Wardens in 2017. Through private donations, Gear Up for Game Wardens provides specialty gear to Texas Game Wardens across the state.

Through the generosity of donors, Gear Up for Game Wardens has provided gear and equipment including all-terrain vehicles, airboats, and funding to replace retiring K-9s. Helping Texas Game Wardens keep up with the latest drone technology is another way Gear Up for Game Wardens is helping to protect the people of Texas.

“We have only had access to drones to assist us in our law enforcement work since 2018,” said Lt. Game Warden Matthew Bridgefarmer, who coordinates the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) program for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We started using them for search and rescue missions, and quickly realized how useful they are in those and other law enforcement situations.”

Drone technology is changing rapidly and providing the latest models to Texas Game Wardens is a priority for Gear Up for Game Wardens. One of the latest models is the new Autel Evo 2, which is a thermal drone that is smaller than previous models, can detect heat signals for night missions, and has a longer battery life.

“This latest model is a small compact foldable drone that will fit in a backpack if a game warden needs to hike in for a mission,” said Bridgefarmer. “The thermal camera has eight times the magnification, and the battery allows for another 15 minutes of flying time. That extra time can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful mission.”

In addition, the new model is about half the cost of previous versions, which means dollars raised through Gear Up for Game Wardens can provide additional drones for more areas of Texas.

“The UAS program has grown quickly over the last few years, and we have 68 drones deployed around the state,” he said. “The majority of them were provided through Gear Up. If it wasn’t for the generosity of these private donors, our UAS program would be a fraction of what it is today.”

Texas Game Wardens are also Texas Peace Officers and are often called upon as force multipliers for smaller law enforcement agencies, especially in rural areas. Over the last 12 months, Texas Game Warden drone operators have participated in 70 search and rescue operations, 49 felony manhunts, 33 border security operations, 16 criminal investigations, and seven drowning recoveries. They are also used to assess disasters, investigate boat accidents, fight fires, and provide training support.

There’s a story behind every single one of those statistics. For example, earlier this year on February 27, Texas Game Wardens were called in to assist in the search for a man who was lost at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area in Potter County. The elderly man, who had diabetes and suffered from cognitive issues, was able to call 9-1-1, but he had no idea where he was. Night had fallen, and temperatures were in the 50s. The local game warden had trained with the new Autel Evo 2 drone just 17 days before and helped local sheriff’s deputies make a safe rescue to reunite the man with his family.

Texas Game Wardens who raise their hands to become drone operators do not receive additional pay for their extra duty. They take it on because they want to be able to deploy the latest technology to get their job done for the people of Texas.

“The fact that this equipment is being provided through private donations is just phenomenal,” said Bridgefarmer. “It’s extremely humbling to realize that, especially in this day and time, there’s still folks that support our core mission of conservation law enforcement and protecting the people of the state of Texas so much that they’re willing to open up their wallets. We all appreciate it and it helps stoke that internal fire that keeps us going.”

Eagle Scout Supports Texas Game Warden K-9 Team

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Shane Menz has spent more than two-thirds of his young life as a Boy Scout. His parents have supported him every step of the way. Now they are beaming with pride as he attains the coveted rank of Eagle Scout. It’s been a 12-year journey for Menz that culminated with 21 merit badges and a service project that will benefit the Texas Game Warden K-9 Team.

“I’ve always had an interest in training dogs because my dad is a police officer and works with K-9s,” said Menz. “I have grown up around police working dogs my entire life. About the time I was thinking about what I would do for my service project I met Texas Game Warden Scott Kirkpatrick and his K-9 Partner, Ray.”

Menz is fascinated by how the K-9s are trained to detect different odors, from rescuing people in search and rescue missions to sniffing out narcotics. Kirkpatrick explained how scent boxes are used in training the dogs for game warden work, and that there weren’t enough of the boxes available for all of the Texas Game Warden K-9s stationed around the state. Menz decided that would be the perfect Eagle Scout service project.

“I saw that scent boxes could assist them in training their K-9 partners in the detection disciplines,” said Menz. “I was very impressed with how the boxes were used and decided that this project would have the most impact now and in the future for training detection dogs.”

The project required purchasing building materials, including plywood and PVC pipe. Prospective Eagle Scouts are required to raise the funds necessary for their projects, but COVID 19 shut down traditional fundraising events. Menz’s parents helped him set up a GoFundMe effort online.

As it turned out, Home Depot ended up donating most of the supplies, so they ended up with a fundraising surplus of close to $700.  Menz decided to donate those funds to Gear Up for Game Wardens, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation (TPWF) program that raises funds for specialty equipment for Texas Game Wardens.

“We were thrilled to hear about this donation, and we’re earmarking the funds to benefit the K-9 Assistance Fund,” said Austin Taylor, who manages the Gear Up for Game Wardens program for TPWF. “The K-9 Assistance Fund provides the resources to replace retiring K-9s on a schedule that will allow for continuity within the K-9 Unit.”

Menz and his parents met Kirkpatrick recently to hand off the 15 scent boxes, which will be distributed to K-9 Teams across Texas.

“We’re all proud of Shane for the work he put into this project,” said Kirkpatrick. “I did a little research about Eagle Scouts and learned that only four percent of those who enter scouting achieve the rank of Eagle Scout. It’s a big deal, and somebody who has that kind of drive is going to succeed in life.”

Shane Menz already has his sights set on his next goal. He plans on earning a degree in Rangeland Ecology and Management from Texas A&M so that he can become a Texas Game Warden.

“That’s what I want to do with my life,” said Menz. “Maybe one day I will be able to use these scent boxes to help train my own K-9 partner as a Texas Game Warden.”

The fundraising goal for the K-9 Assistance Fund is $74,000 and with Shane’s recent donation and others, the total amount raised so far totals $73,219.

Make a Gear Up for Game Wardens donation today, and help push us over the top!

Meet Texas Game Warden Kyle Hendley

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As he was growing up in the small coastal town of Refugio, Texas, Kyle Hendley wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he grew up. He loved hunting, fishing and the outdoors, and in high school he got to know a Texas Game Warden.

“I had some other career ideas in mind, but as I progressed through high school and got to know more about what game wardens were and what they do, it seemed like that was something I’d want to spend the rest of my life doing,” said Hendley. “From that point on, I was totally focused on becoming a Texas Game Warden, because that’s all I wanted to do.”

The game warden he met in high school has since retired and now serves as Refugio County Sheriff.

“Kyle was such a polite and respectful young man and he loved the outdoors,” recalled Refugio County Sheriff Pinky Gonzales. “You could tell his parents raised him right. He was very intrigued with my work life and when he graduated from high school, he told me that though he hadn’t planned on going to college, he would pursue a degree if that’s what it took to become a Texas Game Warden. I’ll never forget that. And sure enough, he followed his dream, and now he’s a great asset for the state of Texas.”

It took Hendley two tries to get accepted into the highly competitive Texas Game Warden Academy. The second time, he was accepted as an alternate, and thought he would have to wait another year to try again. But a slot unexpectedly opened up, and with less than a week to get ready, Kyle began the grueling seven-month training regime to become a Texas Game Warden.

His first duty station in Corpus Christi took him right back to the Texas coastal waters he loves.

“There was a lot to learn, but it was like coming home,” said Hendley. “My wife found a great job in Corpus, and family is less than an hour away. I hope to spend the majority of my career in this region of the state.”

Kyle has emerged as a leader in his district and is honing his skills in many different areas. He’s on the State Forensic Reconstruction and Mapping Team, also called the STORM team, which investigates boating accidents to determine their cause. He is also a licensed drone operator, as well as an airboat operator who works on joint operations with the Coast Guard.

As a Texas Game Warden, Kyle works with all manner of gear and equipment, some of which has been provided through TPWF’s Gear Up for Game Wardens program. Recently, his district received two new pieces of equipment through Gear Up for Game Wardens, including a UTV (Utility T  Vehicle) and airboat trailers specifically modified for a coastal environment.

“We have so many beach areas to patrol, and the UTV allows us to get to areas we couldn’t get to before,” said Hendley. “We’ve been able to use it to find trespassers hunting or fishing without landowner consent, and also for search and rescue operations. During the winter season, we often have to deal with cold-stunned green sea turtles, and this equipment is going to help us save those creatures when they are in distress.”

The airboat trailers are likewise modified for use in soft sand and other coastal condition.

“Before we had these new trailers, we were limited in where we could load and unload our airboats,” said Hendley. “Every time we’re out with it, we’re learning new spots that we can use. That’s vastly increased the range of areas that we can work, whether it’s enforcing hunting and fishing laws or helping in search and rescue operations.”

Hendley is deeply grateful for the support from generous donors to the Gear Up for Game Wardens program.

“It’s nice knowing you have that support, and that it’s coming from all over Texas,” said Hendley.

After several years on the job, Kyle’s passion for his work has not dimmed.

“I absolutely love my job,” said Hendley with a laugh. “I just had four days off and I was chomping at the bit to get back out there, because I love it so much. I feel very fortunate that my boyhood dream of becoming a Texas Game Warden has come true.”

Meet Texas Game Warden Kevin Winters

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Kevin Winters has dreamed of becoming a Texas Game Warden since he was a schoolkid. For a boy from the west side of San Antonio, it was a big dream.

“I fished with my dad, but I had never experienced hunting,” said Kevin. “My family struggled to make ends meet, and it just wasn’t something we did. When my middle school coach found out I was interested in the outdoors, he invited me to go on a hog hunt. I was hooked!”

His high school coach was also an avid hunter and invited Kevin and his friends to spend time at his hunting lease in Hondo. Kevin shot his first white-tailed deer there and learned more about what it means to be an outdoorsman. He also met a Texas Game Warden for the very first time.

“I was interested in law enforcement and knew about police officers and sheriff’s deputies, but I didn’t really know about game wardens,” he said. “He was so friendly, and I was very impressed with his uniform, especially his cowboy hat. I knew at that moment that’s what I wanted to do when I got older.”

Kevin did his homework and learned that he would need to pursue a bachelor’s degree to even think about becoming a Texas Game Warden. That was another big dream.

“I was the first one in my whole family to step foot on a college campus,” he said.

He pursued an associate’s degree in criminal justice, and continued to research what would it would take to make a good game warden candidate. Gaining some law enforcement experience was on top of his list, and he saved up to pay for tuition to the San Antonio College Law Enforcement Academy. That opened the door to his first job as an officer with Edgewood Independent School District, which led to a job with the Converse Police Department. His dream of getting a bachelor’s degree to qualify him for the Texas Game Warden Academy was sidetracked for a while.

“I had to work to help my family out financially, and I thought it would be good to get some law enforcement experience, so I focused on that for a few years.”

He spent another couple of years as a Border Patrol agent and realized he needed to refocus on his dream of becoming a Texas Game Warden. By this time, he had married his high school sweetheart, a teacher, who supported his decision to go back to school. He completed his bachelor’s degree while working full-time, now as a police officer with the City of Live Oak. Degree in hand, he applied to be a Texas Game Warden cadet in late 2015.

“I read somewhere that you have a better chance getting into Harvard, that there’s like a 3% chance of getting in, so I didn’t have my hopes too high,” said Kevin. “When I got the call, I was just overwhelmed. I had worked so hard, for so many years, and I could hardly believe I was on my way to becoming a Texas Game Warden.”

He headed to the Game Warden Training Center in January 2016, while his wife was pregnant with their second child. She held down the fort at home, while Kevin completed the grueling seven-month training regimen. From there the young family was stationed in Webb County, and then moved to Harris County a few years later.

“I loved working the South Texas brush, and also spent a lot of time in inner city neighborhoods in Laredo doing outreach,” said Kevin. “I put in for the Harris County position, because I wanted to learn about commercial saltwater enforcement so I could be a more well-rounded game warden.”

And then another opportunity presented itself: a chance to apply to be a member of the Texas Game Warden K-9 Unit.

“I grew up loving dogs and had always admired the K-9 teams at the police departments I worked at,” he said. “I applied and was thrilled to be selected. My K-9 partner and I will be supporting Texas Game Wardens all over the state.”

Kevin picked up his new partner, Tex, in early August and they’ve begun their intensive training together. Kevin and his wife are now back in their hometown of San Antonio raising their children near their families. For Kevin, it’s truly a dream come true.

“I’m back home after four years in my dream job, in my dream position as a Texas Game Warden, and now I’m part of the K-9 Team. My wife got her teaching job back at the school district she loved before we left in 2016. And my kids will grow up near their grandparents. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m very lucky and very blessed.”