law enforcementHistory of the NH Fish and Game Law Enforcement Division

By Sgt. David Walsh and Sgt. David Eskeland, Conservation Officers

New Hampshire’s foremost attraction for European settlers was its abundance of fish in the area of the Isles of Shoals and a coast full of potential seaports with deep, navigable waters.

The settlers then turned inland to the wealth of tall, straight white pines, ideal for building homes, barns, fences, furniture, and masts for the King’s ships. As the settlers explored further inland in pursuit of these trees, they found an abundance of wildlife that could turn a profit. Beaver were particularly bountiful at the time. Profitable wildlife like beaver drew the settlers further inland to settle what is now New Hampshire.

Beginnings of Wildlife Management

The first attempts at organized wildlife management in New Hampshire came in the form of encouraging hunting among the settlers by paying bounties for predatory animals. These bounties were designed to protect settlers’ livestock. There is evidence that the biggest wildlife challenge threatening the livestock at the time was the large wolf population.

The earliest documentation of organized bounties was from the Dover Town Meeting in 1657. “Whomsoever, either English or Indian, shall kill any wolf or wolves within this township, for so doing four pounds for every wolf killed, and the head brought to the meeting-house on Dover Neck.”

Ten years later, the price to Indians dropped. Whether because the “savages” were making too much money, because of racial discrimination, or simply the fact that there were fewer wolves, it was, “ordered that any Indian that shall kill a wolf - the said Indian shall have 30 shillings and no more.”

On September 18, 1679, the newly formed Province of New Hampshire First General Assembly’s first order of business was to establish a bounty of 40 shillings per wolf killed, unless the hunter was an Indian, in which case they were to be paid 10 shillings per wolf. This amount was changed again in 1716 to add an additional 50 shillings to be paid by the province treasury, in addition to the bounty paid by the town.

The Town of Gilmanton added bears and wildcats to this order and instituted a bounty of 9 pounds for panthers. Bow offered a bounty of one shilling for each crow killed, and 3 pounds for wildcats. New Ipswich paid bounties on 18 crows and 40 foxes in 1883.

Legend has it that in 1866, some people made extra money by collecting bounties from selectmen in Albany for bear ears made from dyed sheepskin.

Over the years, the State has paid bounties on wolves, wildcats, lynx, bears, foxes, woodchucks, porcupines, crows, hawks, woodpeckers, and grasshoppers. Fish and Game paid bounties as recently as 1955.

Protecting Deer and other Wildlife

Soon after the interior was settled, it became evident that the deer population was going to need protection. In 1740, the killing of deer was prohibited between December 31 and August 1 under penalty of 10 pounds.

Every town was required to appoint two proper persons to inspect and search houses for possession of venison and hides of freshly killed deer. These deer inspectors were called “deer reeves.” Deer reeves were given the authority within their jurisdictions to open doors, chests, or other places, locked or hidden. Deer reeves were appointed as late as 1783.

Little to no restrictions were imposed to protect birds, furbearers, or fish for a long time, with an occasional short-lived law protecting furbearers in the summer, when pelts were of no value, and an even shorter attempt to protect birds during rearing months.

Enforcing Wildlife Laws

For the most part, any wildlife laws written had no provision for enforcement, and without special authorization, this duty fell on local authorities.

Later, towns were specifically granted the authority to enforce game laws, and to elect special officers expressly for that purpose. For some years, even after the organization of the Fish and Game Department, wardens continued to be elected by the towns at a town meeting.

Restoring Fisheries

A fisheries commission had been set up in 1866 to consider the restoration of sea fish in the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers, and the introduction of black bass, landlocked salmon, and other freshwater fish. This was reorganized in 1880 as the “Commission of Fisheries and Game” and was given the responsibility of enforcing game laws through the agency of locally chosen wardens.

In the Commission’s first report, only two paragraphs are devoted to game, as fish had been, and continued to be, its primary concern.

On June 30, 1865 the New Hampshire Legislature authorized the Governor, “to appoint two Commissioners to consider the subject of the restoration of sea fish to our waters and the introduction of new varieties of fresh water fish.” Thus what we know today as the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department began as a Commission of Fisheries. In 1880 it was reorganized as a Commission of Fisheries and Game and was given the authority to enforce game laws. Every city and town in the state was mandated to hire their own Game Wardens or face a $50.00 fine. The three Commissioners that made up the Commission of Fisheries and Game were also given the authority to hire up to five Special Detectives. In 1890, the New Hampshire Commission of Fisheries and Game hired the first state fish and wildlife enforcement officer known as a Fish and Game Detective. A Mr. B. F. Chadwick was the first detective hired at $250.00 a year. These early “detectives” were hired for the counties of Coos and Carroll to prevent “crust-hunting” or the killing of deer in deep snow. After the Legislative Session of 1914-1915, Special Fish and Game Detectives became State Game Wardens. Their salary was not to exceed $100 per month plus their necessary expenses when continuously employed, and three dollars per day when not continuously employed for more than two weeks. There were seven State Game Wardens in 1915.

Disappearing Wildlife

The Commission’s second report, put out in 1883, the Commission announced the election of 169 wardens, but omitted the mention of “game.” This is, perhaps, because game was at an all-time low.

In 1878, nine of ten counties were closed to hunting and the taking of a deer was punishable by a $25.00 fine and six months imprisonment. However, it was legal to kill deer in Coos County between August 1st and December 1st, and moose and caribou between September 1st and December 31st.

Without any appropriation for enforcement of laws, the problem of improving the status of game was a difficult one. Local enforcement was perfunctory, convictions were uncommon, and violators flourished. Sale of all kinds of game was legal.

The first mention of enforcement by the state appears in the “report of the Fish and Game detective” included in the Commissioner’s Report for 1890. B.F. Chadwick limits himself to a discussion of the lobster law, a flat, unqualified statement that no offenses against game were prosecuted, and that fishing on Sunday should be prohibited.

It seems the Department took an active role in enforcement of game laws for the first time in 1891. Granted $600.00 to prevent the killing of deer in deep snow, detectives were hired immediately for Coos and Carroll Counties. The job required men who could strap on snowshoes, and with blanket, axe, and provisions, tramp through the snow and unbroken forest, camping wherever night overtook them. After their appointments, much of the crust-hunting stopped. Some twenty poachers were arrested and fined, others left the state. Work continued until the snow was gone, and many deer were saved.

The greatest improvement in regulations affecting birds was accomplished through the enactment of the Federal Migratory Bird Act, enacted in 1918.

Dawning Public Appreciation of Conservation

Handicapped as it was by inadequate financing, enforcement under a centralized agency was, from the start, an improvement over earlier systems. Violators were apprehended and punished, a rare accomplishment under local administration. Much of the credit for the Department’s early success was due to the cooperation of sportsman’s clubs and a dawning public appreciation of conservation.

In 1926, a degree of dignity not previously experienced was attained through the adoption of uniforms for wardens. Within four years, automobiles and outboard motors were purchased, greatly increasing the efficiency of the wardens.

The law limiting the number of State Game Wardens to ten was repealed in 1925 and in 1926 the warden force was nearly doubled. The 1926 Biennial Report of the Department of Fisheries and Game reported that the additions to the warden force cut down the average territory covered by each warden from one thousand square miles to about five hundred square miles. The report also went on to say, “After a great deal of deliberation, it was decided to try providing uniforms to the field men. This plan has been both praised and ridiculed by the public. It certainly adds a degree of dignity not before experienced. A Warden is expected to have other clothing with him at nearly all times and can change very quickly if it seems best.”

Conservation Officers

In 1934, a reorganization raised the standards of the force and resulted in more careful screening. The men became conservation officers rather than wardens, and the scope of their duties explained to include many activities beyond enforcement; they assisted research and hatchery personnel, checked game and fish, maintained feeding stations for game and songbirds, conducted searches for lost persons and suppression of forest fires, represented the Department at sporting meetings, and inspected wildlife breeding farms. Conservation Officers also instruct hunter safety programs and other outdoor education programs.

In 1935 State Game Wardens were now officially called Conservation Officers (COs) and worked under the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. There were 26 Conservation Officers in 1935. This complement of officers cut down the average area covered by each officer to 384 square miles. Additional Conservation Officers were added as World War II ended and hunting and fishing license sales increased dramatically. The number of Conservation Officers would fluctuate between 25 and 50 for the next seven-plus decades. Additional milestones for the Conservation Officer Force include:

  • 1964 - New Hampshire Fish and Game began converting Conservation Officer's to state-owned vehicles (originally started in 1926, the idea was discontinued until 1964)
  • 1967 - The registration of snowmobiles became state law
  • 1968 - first unregistered snowmobile summons issued in Pittsburg by Conservation Officer Carl Carlson
  • 1970 - Conservation Officers, through the hard work of their newly formed Association (see CORA), were now part of the Police and Fire State Retirement System
  • 1972 - Number of Conservation Officers reached an all time high of 50
  • 1976 - Military rank system was adopted within the Law Enforcement Division
  • 2010 - 43 Conservation Officers are currently employed by New Hampshire Fish and Game, with field officers covering an average of 273 square miles

The State is now divided into six Conservation Officer Districts, each under a District Chief, or Lieutenant and an Assistant Chief or Sergeant.


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NH Fish and Game Dept.
11 Hazen Drive
Concord, NH 03301

603-271-3421
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