Tuesday, the Maine Warden Service issued a news release saying that four of its wardens were recognized by the state of Connecticut for their role in helping out after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 dead in December.

The Maine Warden Service was formed in 1880. Its first arrest was of a deer poacher. To many, that’s what wardens still are — the men and women who, under the auspices of the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, enforce the state’s game laws.

So what were they doing in Newtown, Conn.?

The four wardens — Lt. Tom Ward, Sgt. Jason Luce, Chaplain Kate Braestrup and retired Lt. Bill Allen — debriefed 11 state environmental police officers who were first responders to the shooting.

Debriefing. It sounds so unlike what it really is.

The four members of the warden service’s Critical Incident Stress Management team were there to help ease the pain and trauma those first responders felt after seeing the bodies of 20 children and six teachers, all shot to death that December morning.

The team “was organized nearly a decade ago as a means to provide game wardens with the tools to help manage critical incidents often faced as part of their job,” according to Cpl. John MacDonald. “The team provides a safe and confidential environment and emphasizes family, proper eating, sleeping, and exercising habits, and encourages open discussions related to a particular incident.”

In this week’s news release, MacDonald added, “It can be very comforting to express one’s feelings and involvement with an incident and to hear that others are experiencing similar reactions.”

Mainers, especially those who live north of the state’s “urban sprawl” of Portland and vicinity, have long been familiar with the warden service.

Anyone who spends time outdoors knows the wardens will be out there too, in the woods and on the lakes and rivers.

But recently, the service is finally getting the props it deserves farther afield, and the belief wardens exist only to catch moose and deer poachers is being replaced with the realization that they are so much more.

It all started a few years ago, when Camden mystery writer Paul Doiron first featured warden Mike Bowditch in “The Poacher’s Son,” published by Minotaur in 2010 and nominated for an Edgar — mystery writers’ version of an Oscar.

Suddenly, everyone was asking about Maine wardens, and Doiron found himself the national go-to guy.

When he was writing “The Poacher’s Son,” the first of what will be four Bowditch mysteries when “Massacre Pond” comes out in July, Doiron said he couldn’t find many references to wardens in pop culture.

“Really, the only example I could locate was Bill Pullman playing a khaki-shirted pseudo-warden in the horror movie ‘Lake Placid.’ That’s the film about swimmers in a northern Maine lake being eaten by a giant alligator.

“We’ve come a long way, baby,” Doiron said.

“I like to think my books have introduced Maine game wardens to readers who never knew about them previously,” Doiron said this week. “The Poacher’s Son” has been translated into 10 languages, and “I have received inquiring emails about the Warden Service from as far away as Australia and Japan,” he said.

While Doiron introduced wardens into popular culture, TV has made them that 21st-century symbol of really having made it: reality TV stars.

The Animal Planet show “North Woods Law” follows wardens in different parts of the state as they not only enforce game laws, but also confront drunken Massachusetts hunters and chase down speeding ATVers.

For those in central Maine, there are also more poignant moments that hit home for us: the search in Big Wood Pond in Jackman for drowned boater Stephen Coleman and an unsuccessful ice-cold winter search of the Kennebec River in Waterville for missing toddler Ayla Reynolds.

“One aspect of the Maine warden’s job that I try to emphasize is that they really are off-road police officers,” Doiron said. “In other states, conservation officers have more limited arrest powers and their responsibilities don’t always extend to all-terrain vehicles, boating and snowmobiling.

“Some readers are always surprised to learn that our wardens are full-fledged cops.”

“Between ‘North Woods Law’ and, to a lesser extent, my Mike Bowditch novels, the Maine Warden Service definitely seems to be enjoying a moment of national attention.”

It’s a good thing. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Warden Service used to get thousands of applications. In 2007, that was down to 70, making it tough to find qualified applicants, according to outdoors blogger John Holyoke. A year ago he wrote that since the TV show, interest in the service had grown.

National attention or no, the wardens keep doing what they do in that friendly, humble, no-frills Maine way.

A warden, Terry Hughes, was instrumental in tracking down and arresting Christopher Knight, the now world-famous North Pond Hermit.

Then there’s the group that helped the first responders at Sandy Hook Elementary deal with the emotional aftermath of that day who were recognized this week.

But it’s a more prosaic moment that also says everything you need to know about Maine Game Wardens.

One of the best moments so far in the two seasons of “North Woods Law” was when Warden Kris McCabe, based in Farmington, saw blood and marks in the snow near a partially frozen creek and realized an injured loon was trapped under the ice.

McCabe’s successful rescue of the loon, his compassion, enthusiasm and joy, may have been on reality TV; but it was pure, simple reality.

Hard not to love the wardens. And now the rest of the world can see why.

Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected] Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.