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Longtime North Dakota game warden calls it a career

Gary Rankin came to Larimore, N.D., in 1977 as the new game warden for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department after spending a year teaching in West Yellowstone, Mont., and two years as a teacher in his hometown of Marmarth, N.D.

Gary Rankin came to Larimore, N.D., in 1977 as the new game warden for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department after spending a year teaching in West Yellowstone, Mont., and two years as a teacher in his hometown of Marmarth, N.D.

Rankin was looking for a change, and the new job certainly provided it.

Friday, the soft-spoken game warden spends his last day on the job, marking the end to a 36-year career that saw him become one of the most well-known -- and well-liked -- people on eastern North Dakota's outdoors landscape.

"I've been looking at it for probably a year or so, thinking this would be a good time to retire," Rankin, 62, said. "I could have gone longer. I guess no one had shown me the door yet.

"I don't want to wait for that."

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Rankin, whose wife, Susan, teaches second grade in Larimore, said he credits George Jankowski, a former warden in his hometown, for steering him toward a career in game and fish enforcement.

"He was a person that people respected, and he just had a good reputation," Rankin said. "I guess if there'd been a game warden there that was a stinker, I wouldn't have thought about it, but at the time, Game and Fish had openings."

He's been in Larimore ever since, covering an area of about 3,000 square miles that includes Grand Forks County and parts of Traill, Steele, Griggs, Walsh and Nelson counties.

Changes

Rankin said he's seen a lot of changes over the years, both on the landscape and among hunters.

"I think we have better hunters than when I started," Rankin said, crediting the Hunter Education Program for the trend. "Or maybe I'm just not as good at catching them. But for the most part, I do think people respect and maybe appreciate what they're doing a little more."

This is a time of challenges, Rankin said, citing the loss of land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program and the western North Dakota oil boom as having an impact on wildlife habitat, at least in the short term.

"There's going to be less room for ground-nesting birds and other critters, but when I started, there were no bald eagle nests in North Dakota, and I think at last count, there probably were over 100 nests in the state," Rankin said. "We didn't have otters when I started. We didn't have fishers. There were no mountain lions in North Dakota. I think, overall, wildlife has done pretty well, and I'm pretty optimistic about that."

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Rankin said it's difficult to pick hunting or fishing cases that stand out, but the Red River often provided a fertile environment for violators.

"We've had some big over-limits and fish trapping and fish selling," Rankin said. "Some pretty significant trapping cases on the rivers and nonresidents coming in and setting up long trapping lines. I don't know -- it just seems like the Red River has always been interesting."

'Great asset'

Paul Freeman, northeast enforcement supervisor for Game and Fish in Devils Lake, said he'll miss Rankin's ability to deal with people and treat them fairly, even when they're breaking the rules.

"He doesn't get excited too much, you don't hear him yelling and screaming at people," Freeman said. "He's been a great asset to our department for a lot of years. He just doesn't treat people poorly, and he still does his job. He's kind of a rare breed."

Rankin said he and his wife will continue to take summer backpacking trips to western Montana, and he hopes to spend time working on land he owns along the Sheyenne River, perhaps planting trees and building a small cabin.

They plan to stay in the area, he said.

"I guess we've got roots here and are not too anxious to leave," he said.

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Rankin said if he could offer any advice to up-and-coming wardens, he'd simply tell them to enjoy what they're doing.

"The job is great," he said. "Sometimes, you can't believe you're actually being paid to canoe down a river or do some pretty neat things."

Now, Rankin said, he'll be able to continue doing those things -- just on his own terms.

"I'm looking toward (retirement) with a little apprehension, but I'm going to be real glad when May 10 gets here," he said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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