Women’s History Month: Celebrating the legacy of female wildlife officers in Colorado

There are many heroic women in Colorado’s history – formidable women who overcame huge odds and continue to serve as role models. 
CPW employees
Pictured is a small sampling of women who contribute richly to Colorado Parks and Wildlife
125th Anniversary Logo

There are many heroic women in Colorado’s history – formidable women who overcame huge odds and continue to serve as role models across generations. 

A good example is Clara Brown, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1880, was separated from her family and sold at auction repeatedly until 1856 when she was granted her freedom. Upon her release, she joined a wagon train headed west and settled in Central City. There, she became known as “Aunt Clara” and famous for helping other former slaves travel west, find jobs and raise families here after the end of the Civil War. A stained glass window in the Colorado State Capitol honors her.

Another legendary pioneer woman of Colorado was Helen Hunt Jackson, a writer and activist living in Colorado Springs who campaigned for improved treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. Her 1881 book “A Century of Dishonor” and her 1884 novel “Ramona” made her unpopular in the region but earned her widespread acclaim as she worked to ease the suffering of Native Americans.

Annie Metcalf
Annie Metcalf

You could just as easily add to the list of trailblazing Colorado women the names of Annie Metcalf and Susan Smith. They are women who forged a path for all future female wildlife officers in Colorado – Metcalf in the 1880s and Smith in the modern era.

And in March, a month celebrating women, it’s a good time to look at these two inspiring wildlife officers.

In 1898, Annie Metcalf made state history when she became Colorado’s first female game warden. She was just a year late making national history. In 1897, Huldah Neal from Michigan took the honor when she became America’s first female game warden. 

Metcalf was appointed by Colorado Game Commissioner J.S. Sawn to serve as a deputy game warden in Routt County.

In a Feb. 15, 1898, profile, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch described Metcalf as “exceedingly well qualified for the position of a practical game warden.” 

“The duties of a deputy warden are to hold himself or herself in readiness to be called on at any time to aid in the enforcement of the game laws of the state or to arrest any person found breaking the law, either by killing game out of season or having it unlawfully in possession,” the Post-Dispatch story said.

“Miss Metcalf is exceedingly well qualified for the position of a practical game warden.”

According to the newspaper, Metcalf was an expert rifle and revolver shot and “can handle most weapons as dexterously as any man.”

The newspaper also praised her skills in the saddle, saying she was “a clever horsewoman and as a daring, dashing rider she is without an equal among her sex in the state.”

Metcalf declined to detail many of her escapades as a game warden even though some stories, she told the paper,  “would make your hair turn gray with fright.”

Metcalf was just 26 years old in 1898 – 22 years before women had the right to vote. Yet, she was patrolling remote Colorado wilderness on horseback, a gun at her side, arresting violators of game laws and confronting dangerous wildlife.

Metcalf didn’t want to be thought of as a superhero. In fact, there was one animal that sent her running.  

“It is said that she was fearless, except when it came to cows,” the Post-Dispatch reported. “She would readily face dangers such as mountain lions; but would run from, or scramble up a telegraph pole, to avoid being in the path of a cow.” 

Metcalf insisted cows seemed to hate her.

“I am much afraid of a cow,” she told the newspaper. “All cows seem to have a particular dislike for me. I don’t know why, but it’s true, though. I never met one on the road yet that didn’t run after me, whether I was on foot, on horseback or mounted on a wheel.” 

Susan Smith
Susan Smith

Fast-forward to 1974 when Susan Smith joined the Division of Wildlife (DOW) as a District Wildlife Manager, or DWM, becoming Colorado’s first modern female wildlife officer.

By the time Smith was sworn in, much had changed in Colorado since Metcalf’s time.

For example, Colorado no longer had “game wardens.” Instead, the wildlife agency officially dropped the title in the 1950s in favor of “District Wildlife Manager” to better reflect the qualifications and duties of wildlife officers including the requirement that each must have a college education with an emphasis in biology.

Also, the state wildlife agency had changed names several times. By 1974, it was the Division of Wildlife. Today, it’s known as Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW).

CPW’s Colorado Outdoors magazine profiled Smith in March 1975 noting she held two bachelor degrees: one in Animal Science from the University of Arizona and another in Wildlife Biology from Arizona State University. 

After completing six months of instruction at the DOW’s candidate trainee school, Smith found herself competing with 209 trainees for just 12 available wildlife conservation officer openings, the magazine story said. 

Her performance earned her an appointment rated as a trainee candidate. Smith was appointed to the Vail district on Feb. 1, 1974.

“I needed a job and sincerely believed that I was qualified for this one,” Smith told the magazine in 1975. “I didn’t go into this to prove anything about a woman’s ability to handle the job. It was the work that interested me, the job itself.”

It was not an easy path for Smith, according to then-DOW Director Perry Olson. In a 1990 article about female wildlife officers, Olson acknowledged that some of Smith’s peers did not immediately accept her as a wildlife officer. 

“There was a lot of resistance initially to hiring women,” Olson said. “The most often heard complaints were women weren’t strong enough or tough enough to do the jobs.”

But Olson told the magazine Smith and the women who followed her into the agency proved the skeptics wrong.

“I feel some of our women are among the best officers in the division,” Olson said. “They handle themselves well.” 

Today, it’s common to see female wildlife officers in Colorado, arresting poachers, patrolling during hunting seasons, wrangling bighorn sheep on relocation operations, trapping and transporting nuisance bears or teaching hunter education courses.

And not a single one reports any fear of cows.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 125th Anniversary throughout 2022 to honor the legacy of our agency and the talented staff who make fulfilling CPW’s important mission possible. For more stories like this, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 125th Anniversary web page!

 Written by Cassidy English. Cassidy is a District Wildlife Manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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