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Nuisance bears, rabid skunks, search and rescue. Duties are seldom dull for New Hampshire Fish and Game. But for nine seasons the department added a twist to its operations, participating in the show “North Woods Law.”
Imagine scaling a rocky mountain ridge to rescue an injured hiker, or facing off with a rabid skunk in a residential area, or searching a refrigerator for meat from a deer that was illegally hunted. Those seem like they could be high-pressure scenarios, right?
Now imagine doing all that with a camera pointed at you, with a global audience excitedly anticipating what might happen next.
For several years, that was the situation for conservation officers at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.
“North Woods Law” is a reality television show that aired 13 seasons on Animal Planet. The program initially followed Maine fish and game wardens before shifting to Granite State officers in 2017. Over the following five years, a camera crew documented the daily work lives of the green-uniformed officers as they did everything from checking fishing licenses to undertaking bold rescues on Mount Washington, the largest mountain in the Northeast.
The most recent episodes aired last year. (The show is on hold while a media merger plays out.)
Col. Kevin Jordan joined the agency nearly 30 years ago after a short stint in local law enforcement. In a recent interview with Route Fifty, Jordan discussed the many roles a conservation officer fills, how reality television helped the department, and the challenges of a government agency participating in a TV show.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Route Fifty: What are some of the responsibilities of a New Hampshire conservation officer?
Every state is a little bit different in its wildlife agencies. But our duties in New Hampshire are still very similar to traditional roles. So we are responsible by law for all hunting and fishing, trapping. So that amounts to stocking fish, checking licenses, enforcing fish and game laws, enforcing bag limits and methods of take. We do all of the safety education for outdoor activities for hunting, fishing, trapping, and bow hunting. We also enforce all laws relating to off-highway vehicles. So that would be snow machines in the wintertime and all-terrain vehicles in the summertime.
We're in charge of all search and rescue that is required for people outside of highways. So anyone in the woods or waterways in the state becomes our responsibility when they're injured or missing or, unfortunately, in fatalities.
Hiking is a big call for service for us because New Hampshire has the White Mountains, which is some of the toughest Appalachian trail systems—the Appalachian Trail, which starts in Georgia and ends on [Mount] Katahdin in Maine. Many times, people have told me that New Hampshire's trail system is the most difficult going through the White Mountains. We do all of that search and rescue activity there.
We prosecute all our own cases in court. The officers are responsible for rabies calls and public safety for nuisance animals, including everything from a woodchuck to a black bear.
We also enforce all laws in New Hampshire. So we do the criminal code, we enforce motor vehicle laws when we're confronted with them. We don't go out and run right out on the highways, but if we see someone run a stop sign or a stoplight, we address that.
[There are] 44 of us patrolling the entire state of New Hampshire, which is not nearly enough. We're always looking to hire more, like everyone is, but we are really short handed. We've got guys covering 10 to 12 towns each. So it's a huge, huge undertaking.
Route Fifty: Can you talk about how New Hampshire Fish and Game got involved with North Woods Law and what that’s been like?
I learned a lot more about television than I ever wanted to know. At first, the default answer to that request would have been, you know, obviously, it was going to be “no.”
And then as I kept an open mind, and I met with a camera crew, and they had done some work in Maine. So I had some conversations with the guys in Maine. And I found out some of the things they did right, and some of the things that didn't go well for them.
And so we put together, kind of, a contract. I had some very specific requests. And I made it very clear at the start of that, if we didn't get it, we weren't going to do it. One of those [requests] was complete edit rights. I wanted and needed the ability to say ‘no, we're not going to show that’ and I was really happy I got that, because television is selling a product. And the more sensational it is, the better it sells. And I get that.
But some of these were tragedies that we still have surviving families here. And you know, you didn't want to see that on primetime. I mean, you could show it, but do it with good taste.
We hit a level of popularity that I never imagined we would ever hit, to the point where it kind of spiraled out of control at times.
The way we picked officers, we didn't assign anyone, we kind of left it up to them, which was a good decision, I think. Some chose to be on it for a short time and then said, ‘Yeah, I've had enough of that.’ Others stayed on it from start to finish. Some wanted nothing to do with it whatsoever. And we allowed that to happen.
What we found was, once the show got up and rolling, the people that didn't want anything to do with it started seeing these officers having a good time with it, [and] we slowly encouraged more and more involvement. And before long, practically everybody played a role in it at some time or another. They may not have been a star. But they appeared a number of times.
Route Fifty: What were some of the challenges doing the show?
There was a lot of work added to a very busy schedule as it is…It is a really unique job in law enforcement because you're doing everything a police officer does, and then you're throwing in all the science work with it, all the wildlife knowledge that you have to have, the ability to work with animals as much as, or nearly as much as, you do with people.
The [camera] crew that came were really good people, they were very fit. They followed [the officers] around everywhere they went. So if we went on a search, as long as it was safe, [like if] it wasn't under extreme conditions, they would go with us and carry that camera equipment.
That added a lot of work to the field officers, because they've now got a camera crew to be concerned about. The camera crew could amount to one, maybe two guys at a time, and they would periodically do an interview, they would stop and pull over to the side of the road and interview about what just happened on the river when they checked that last license.
But it was a good opportunity for us to get all kinds of messaging out. We hadn't really thought about it until we had that platform. And we had the world stage–I was getting emails from Australia, so there were a lot of people watching it.
How to live with wildlife, how to live safely with wildlife, how to treat our outdoors so that we have it for years to come—all of those messaging opportunities were great.
I still have people show up here from Pennsylvania, that come up on vacation all the way to New Hampshire, because they want to meet guys that were on the North Woods Law show. So we capitalized on it. We use the guys, the officers, [in] fundraisers for different events. We raised a lot of money for a camp for underprivileged kids [and] we did a lot for the Make-a-Wish program using their stardom or their fame, if you will.
Route Fifty: Do think the show has had any impact on recruitment? Or were there other benefits?
It did. We're just starting to now see some of that advantage. It was slow to come and I'm still thinking that, years down the road, we're going to see that [more], because we get eight-year-old kids in here that are excited about [the job].
To some degree, it certainly helped with our funding. Because you didn't have to explain to the Legislature why we needed a certain piece of equipment, they could see it. [The show] encouraged conversations for change in a lot of different areas from the Legislature, which was good—laws that they felt were not appropriate for what we were seeing, and they were seeing some of the challenges we were having with enforcing some of those laws.
Route Fifty: You’ve been with the fish and game department for nearly three decades. Has the job changed much in that time?
Yeah, it's changed a great deal in that the calls for service have tripled from the days of old when I first started. These guys and girls are doing twice as much as we ever did when we were in the field. Because populations change and cell phones have improved. So their calls for service have increased. I think that's part of the search and rescue boom: people can call easier now. So they do.
The ATV boom was a big step for us that we went from, you know, one or two trails within the state to thousands of miles of trails. So that's put a great demand on our staff that we haven't really met yet. We're still fighting to get that under control. Snow machines, you know, increase each year, the activity and the people that engage in it.
Route Fifty: What’s your most memorable wildlife encounter?
What you'll find most times with wild animals is they're as surprised and as anxious to get away from you as you are of them. And sometimes that can create some funny instances. I had one very early in my career.
We trap bears that become nuisance bears in neighborhoods. So if you get a bear that's coming routinely to a residence and doing damage, it's eating birdseed and, you know, just wreaking havoc.
And so we would set a culvert trap, [which] is a large culvert all closed in. In those days, the traps that we used, there wasn't a lot of visibility inside of them. [They] had a big iron door on the back.
And so we would capture those bears and bring them back to a regional office where a biologist would, or in some cases us, we would tranquilize it and we'd weigh it, check its teeth and age, check his general health and then transport it wherever we want to release it.
And so, one morning, I was sent to retrieve a trap to trap a nuisance bear.
The night before that, no one knew, another officer had done that and he left the bear in it, in a shady spot, waiting for the biologists. We didn't know… [and the bear] stayed very quiet in the trap.
So I went around to the back and pulled open the door just to make sure the trap had been cleaned and, much to my surprise, staring within a foot or so of me, was an adult black bear that came charging out,knocking me to the ground to get away from me.
But we've all had instances like that, you know, where you've had a moose go into a swimming pool, and you had to come up with kind of a, you know, a unique way to get them out of there.
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.