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.”