From Billings Gazette
By Brett French Of The Gazette Staff
Steve Puppe doesn't want to think about how many hours he has worked on his new television series “Wardens,” which follows Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officers.
“I never really figured it out,” he said. “I've totally enjoyed it, so the time involved doesn't matter.”
The program debuts Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on the Outdoor Channel. Puppe's Muddy Boots Productions sold 13 episodes to the cable channel and has plans to do another season or two.
“It's going to be a fabulous deal, I think,” said Jim Kropp, FWP's chief of law enforcement. “They worked really hard to show the positive side of our work. And I think it will be great for the state of Montana.”
Kropp said there is no monetary incentive for the state to participate in the show.
“We're doing it for the exposure of what we do,” he said — and the scenery shots are a great advertisement for Montana.
Puppe rode along with wardens across the state this summer and fall, filming episodes at places including the Tongue River Reservoir on the Fourth of July and policing the annual spring paddlefish-snagging season on the Yellowstone River, north of Glendive.
“It's not one specific topic for the whole episode,” Puppe said. “Most are two topics. I try to tie them together seasonally.”
Even though Puppe said he envisioned his show 10 years ago, “Wardens” debuts on the heels of two shows crafted in a similar vein — “Wild Justice,” which follows California game wardens and airs on the National Geographic Channel, and the Discovery Channel's “Operation Wild,” which follows Florida game officials.
Puppe said he filmed his pilot episode with a more “cop-style” feel to it, but abandoned that format after the Outdoor Channel picked up the program.
“I didn't feel that was appropriate,” he said. “So I put more information in there.”
Puppe spent two days riding with wardens Paul Luepke, Derek Fagone, Chris Anderson and Justin Hawkaluk on the Yellowstone River as they patrolled the annual Livingston-to-Columbus boat float.
Luepke said it was odd at first having his work filmed, but he soon forgot about Puppe's presence and went about his job.
Jeff Darrah, FWP warden captain in Missoula's Region 2, helped Puppe film the pilot for the show and worked with him on episodes and reviewed the first three episodes. He said that although he's had folks ride along with him before, it was different having a microphone and video cameraman recording everything. By nature, wardens try to avoid the limelight, he said.
“None of us are actors or TV stars,” he said. “But everyone has got a show anymore — the exterminator, gold panners — now we've got our turn.”
Darrah said he was surprised that the hunters he checked in the field were not more paranoid or cautious about being filmed.
“They asked what was going on,” he said. When he told them, they said, “Oh cool, we'll be on TV.”
Darrah is hopeful that the shows will give the public a better understand of a game warden's duties.
“We don't just write tickets and look for poachers,” he said.
Puppe said he came away from the first season of filming with a lot of respect for what the wardens do.
“The way a warden can turn a situation from bad to good very quickly — even if they got a ticket, people always walked away smiling,” he said.
“I was very impressed with the staff of game wardens they have in the state.”
The episodes were carefully planned to highlight certain themes, but there were also unexpected events that kept him busy filming, Puppe said.
“One game warden I worked with, he had a great quote. I asked him what's the average day like? He said, 'I don't know, I've never had one.'”
Contact Brett French, Gazette Outdoors editor, at email@example.com or at 657-1387.