Fruita area DOW officer epitomizes agency’s highest award
Flying back to Grand Junction last summer after recruiting future elk hunters at the Eastern Sports and Outdoors Show in Harrisburg, Pa., Paul Creeden spent some waiting time in Dallas by checking his email.
Among the messages the veteran Colorado wildlife officer found was one confirming he had been nominated for the prestigious John D. Hart Wildlife Officer of the Year award. Named after the man who spent 40 years with the Division of Wildlife and earned the nickname “Mr. Colorado Game and Fish,” the award is given annually to one officer selected and voted on by his peers.
Creeden, whose 26 1/2 years with the division make him one of the agency’s senior wildlife officers, was surprised to see his name among the elite.
“I was quite surprised to be nominated,” said Creeden, speaking via cell phone from somewhere in the wild country between Fruita and Douglas Pass. “It’s great because it is the officer of year award but even more prestigious because you’re voted on by your peers who wear that badge and are doing wildlife law enforcement in Colorado.”
Another even bigger surprise, to no one but Creeden that is, came a few weeks later during the DOW’s annual in-service training in Colorado Springs.
Creeden, who has spent the majority of his wildlife career in the Fruita district, was named the recipient of the 2010 John D. Hart Award.
As wildlife officer of the year, Creeden not only has the respect of his fellow officers but also wears a special officer-of-the-year pin that’s small in size but immense in distinction.
“Just being nominated is an honor but winning it means your peers think you’re at the highest level,” said Ron Velarde, the DOW Northwest Region manager and the 2002 wildlife officer of the year. “That for me made it especially significant, and I’ll tell you I wear my pin every day. Not everyone gets to wear one.”
Creeden, who graduated Michigan State University in 1978 and spent several years doing field work prior to getting on with the Division of Wildlife in 1984, was nominated for the award by DOW Area Manager JT Romatzke and the rest of the Area 7 officers.
“Paul was kind of an easy one for us,” Romatzke said. “When we sat down to make a decision, he was an obvious choice. His unwavering dedication to wildlife made it kind of a no-brainer.”
Once notified he was a nominee for the award, Creeden began to worry. Not only would he have to stand up in front of entire room of DOW brass and fellow officers, he might have to say something in front of the crowd.
But during the award ceremony, which included shaking the hands of previous officers of the year, he walked right past his wife, Renee.
“Well, I really was standing a bit off to the back because I wanted to make sure he got all the attention,” said Renee, who knew of the award a week earlier and kept that secret from Paul. “They usually bring over the family of the winner and he kept asking me, ‘Are you going to the in-service training?’ and I’d say, ‘Why? There’s no reason for me to go.’ “
It wasn’t until DOW Director Tom Remington asked Creeden to introduce his family that Creeden realized Renee was there.
“It was funny because he walked right past her,” said Romatzke with a laugh. “A couple of guys had to point her out to him.”
When asked about that, Creeden’s cell phone was quiet for a second.
“They snuck her in,” Paul said in self-defense. “I didn’t even notice her and walked right past her. You can bet I had to live with that one for a while.”
Creeden began his training with the Division of Wildlife in 1984 but his career actually began a few years earlier.
After graduating Michigan State University, his first fieldwork came in 1979 when he found a job working on a beetle-kill spray program with the Colorado State Forest Service.
He then started work on his master’s degree in wildlife ecology at Colorado State University, his thesis being one of the first studies of the desert bighorn sheep newly translocated into western Colorado.
“I studied them in ‘81 and ‘82 and, soon after I got the fieldwork done, a district wildlife manager position opened up,” he said.
By then he had married Renee, a native of Chambersburg, Pa., who he met while they both were working at a Pizza Hut during one of his returns to his home in Carlisle, Pa.
After the required six months of training, he took over the Dinosaur district in February of 1985. In 1988, he moved to the Fruita district and, except for a five-year spell on Glade Park, he’s been in Fruita ever since.
“Obviously, I really like it here,” he said. “I like the people and I like to roam, so Fruita is a good fit.”
There’s plenty of room to roam, although carrying a cell phone has made every game warden’s world a little smaller.
“Yeah, I was doing OK until they put a radio collar on me in the form of a cell phone,” laughed Creeden, speaking to this reporter on his cell phone.
The Creedens have twin 25-year-old sons. Sean is a medical student at Creighton University in Omaha and Eric is working on a master’s degree in wildlife management at the University of Idaho.
Creeden not only carries the wildlife message to area schools and outdoor shows, he is well-respected for his investigative work. Two cases in particular, which broke up extensive poaching operations in Colorado and Utah, have distinguished his career.
“He’s really the consummate wildlife law officer,” said Velarde, who has seen many of the best in his 40-year career with the agency. “In addition to a good multi-purpose law officer, whether it’s law enforcement, public land issues, public relations with landowners and school kids, he’s an all-around good guy.
“He epitomizes what the John D. Hart award stands for.”