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New Hampshire Game Management Challenges

Mark Ellingwood: (603) 271-2461
Jane Vachon: (603) 271-3211

August 12, 2015

New England was settled by hunters and trappers; trade in beaver pelts was a principle form of commerce in New Hampshire for nearly 150 years. Wild game was a critical staple for settlers who struggled to sustain themselves in the small openings they hacked out of our primordial forests. In 1876, a Charlestown, NH, resident was quoted as saying, “Hunting, in the infancy of our country, was the most profitable employment of its inhabitants.” For early settlers, survival, not science-based wildlife management, was job one.

Unregulated wildlife consumption and exploitation eventually took its toll.  By 1800, numerous wildlife species including bear, deer and moose were largely absent from the New Hampshire landscape. Wildlife populations that had formerly supported some 5,000 Native Americans declined and then collapsed under the demands of unregulated use by an estimated 184,000 settlers. By 1850, expansive land clearing for farming and livestock grazing had eliminated important wildlife habitat and further contributed to the decline of native wildlife. This, coupled with the commercial exploitation via market hunting, brought wildlife populations to new lows.

A New Conservation Ethic

The late 19th century gave birth to a new conservation ethic borne of the demise of the “unlimited bounty” that had greeted European settlers 300 years prior. In New Hampshire, this ethic was heralded in part by the establishment of New Hampshire’s Fisheries Commission in 1865, the precursor to our modern day Fish and Game Department. The late 1800s and the early 1900s were formative years. Federal legislation also began to protect our wildlife resources. The Weeks Act provided for the protection of forestland, including the White Mountain National Forest; the Lacey Act prohibited the interstate transport of illegally taken fish and wildlife; and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act was an international treaty to protect migratory birds. These were all reflective of changing societal priorities.

The birth of modern wildlife management occurred in the 1930s with the founding of The Wildlife Society, the preeminent society of wildlife professionals, and passage of the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, which created a critical funding source for state wildlife agencies derived from an excise tax on certain hunting equipment.

Science-based Management

Fish and Game’s research, management and enforcement efforts, aided by active public education and outreach, helped guide New Hampshire’s successful game population restoration and recovery efforts over the past century.  Transition of wildlife management regulatory authority from the state legislature to the Fish and Game Department in the late 1970s further entrenched science as the basis for management decision-making.

Over the course of 400 years, New Hampshire’s view of wildlife had evolved from that of unregulated exploitation to one of science-based conservation and management. The restoration of our wild turkey population, the recovery of our deer, bear and moose populations, the recent recovery of our bobcat population, and multiple nongame success stories all serve to illustrate the ecological and social benefits of a properly funded, science-based wildlife management agency.

A Daunting Future for Wildlife

Despite our successes, there is no time to rest, as the future for wildlife is more daunting than the past. As our human population grows, habitat loss represents a significant and ongoing threat to New Hampshire’s game and nongame wildlife. Climate change literally threatens to rewrite the book on wildlife distribution, health and abundance. This is particularly true for species on the edge of their range, where subtle shifts in temperature and moisture regimes can have significant adverse impacts. Moose, at the southern edge of their range in New Hampshire, are a prime example. Shorter winters appear to favor an abundance of winter ticks that negatively impact moose productivity and survival. Fish and Game is heavily vested in research to better understand the ecology and impacts of winter tick on our invaluable moose resource.

New and expanding wildlife diseases constitute an additional threat.  The rapid and continued spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and the expanding range of hemorrhagic disease, both of which affect deer, serve to remind us that wildlife threats are not static. Thus, Fish and Game’s significant annual investments in disease monitoring and our active role in the newly formed Northeast Wildlife Disease Cooperative, which brings together state agencies and veterinary diagnostic laboratories, and provides a wide diversity of disease and wildlife expertise to address regional disease issues.  

A Public Trust Resource

In North America, wildlife is a public trust resource; wildlife belongs to the people and is managed on their behalf.  Such a system requires a well-informed and well-vested public. The commercialization of wildlife can undermine the public trust doctrine by prioritizing commercial interests over broader public interests. Disease issues associated with the national proliferation of commerce in deer serve to illustrate this threat. The rapid urbanization of our human population creates a disconnect between people (youth in particular), and the inherent ecological and social value of wildlife and their habitats to the health of our environment and quality of our lives. Suffice it to say that changing social mores and public indifference constitutes an insidious threat to our wildlife resources and traditions. The N.H. Fish and Game Department is on the forefront of protecting both the natural resources (wildlife, land and water) that we cherish and the values that are so important to the future health of our wildlife populations.    

Looking to the Future

New Hampshire Fish and Game’s game management programs, like our nongame programs, are science driven.  The implementation of research projects, the conversion of good data into effective management decisions, the implementation of these decisions in the form of regulations, the enforcement of regulations, and public outreach and education all require adequate funding and broad public support. Department funding is flat, while basic costs have continued to rise.  The fact that Fish and Game faces funding challenges should surprise no one; we’ve been actively spreading the word about funding shortfalls for years now, and the proverbial chickens have arrived home to roost.

If wildlife makes your heart beat faster; if you are an advocate for science-based management; if you agree that healthy wildlife populations and habitats are a critical part of the “New Hampshire advantage” – and if you recognize that the continued presence of healthy, diverse wildlife populations in New Hampshire is dependent on adequate funding of the State’s wildlife agency, then I urge you to share these sentiments with your friends, neighbors, community leaders and legislative representatives. A recent survey indicates that over 90% of our citizenry places high importance on the proper management and conservation of our fish and wildlife resources. For many, the quality of life in New Hampshire depends on our success.



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