Still smiling after 23 years, Wayne Saunders to retire from NH Fish and Game later this month

Union Leader Correspondent
May 13. 2018 9:04PM
Wayne Saunders joined New Hampshire Fish and Game on May 12, 1995. At the end of this month, he is leaving his post as the head of the Fish and Game Region 1 headquarters in Lancaster. (FACEBOOK)


After a 23-year career during which he’s been shot, sprayed by skunks, charged by moose, delivered both good and sad news to hundreds of families, and, more recently, become a minor reality TV star, Lt. Wayne Saunders is retiring at the end of the month from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

“It feels like the right time,” said Saunders, 49, adding he looks forward to being home more in Stark with his wife, Lorie, and their son.

He is the head of the agency’s Region 1 office in Lancaster, which is responsible for covering the geographically huge but sparsely populated Coos County as well as a few communities in neighboring Grafton County. Born in Laconia, Saunders grew up in nearby Belmont. After earning an associate’s degree in wildlife technology and management at the State University of New York–Cobleskill, he worked in law enforcement for the National Park Service and was a refuge officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

His postings included Oregon, Washington state, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

On May 12, 1995, Saunders joined Fish and Game, the culmination of a dream he said he first had as a child. At 6, Saunders had been out with his dad hunting grouse when they were confronted in the woods by Fish & Game Lt. Dave Hewitt, who checked their licenses.

Hewitt, Saunders recalled, “had this huge Stetson on and I just wanted to be the cowboy, the police in the woods, and just stuck with it.”

His badge saved him

Saunders will always be linked to one of the North Country’s darkest days, Aug. 19, 1997. That was when Carl Drega, a 62-year-old carpenter from Bow who had a seasonal home on the Connecticut River in Columbia, went on a shooting rampage that left two New Hampshire state troopers, a judge and a newspaper editor dead in Colebrook.

Drega fled into Vermont where, before being shot and killed, he encountered and shot Saunders, as well as two other New Hampshire state troopers and a U.S. Border Patrol agent. All four recovered. Saunders was spared more serious or possibly fatal injury because Drega’s bullet struck his Fish and Game badge.

Saunders said he’s also been close to death when a moose suffering from brain-worm disease charged him “at stampede.” 

‘North Woods Law’

Although still serving actively in the field, Saunders is now more a manager, a role that has been documented numerous time since 2017 when Animal Planet began working with Fish and Game to film a New Hampshire version of “North Woods Law.”

On the program, “I’m the boss usually running a search,” Saunders said. The conversation officer are the ones who get the prominent face time, something Saunders doesn’t regret at all.

“I think getting shot (by Drega) put me in a better category of famous,” Saunders joked, adding it is “funny to watch me” on “North Woods Law” because “I don’t write a whole lot of paper (citations) anymore.”
JOHN KOZIOL/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT New Hampshire Fish and Game Lt. Wayne Saunders, who will retire at the end of the month after a 23-year career with the agency, holds a wood medallion bearing its logo. 

The work has doubled

As a conservation officer, then a sergeant, and since 2013, the head of the Region 1 office, Saunders believes he has the distinction of having covered “every patrol in Coos County.”

Region 1, he said during a recent interview, “has probably some of the best wildlife and outdoors in the state.” It is also among the busiest regions for Fish and Game to work in, featuring an extensive hiking system that is used year-round. In the past decade, it has also become a seasonal playground for snowmobilers and off highway recreational vehicles (OHRVs).

Saunders does not deny that his job and the job of conservation officers in Region 1 have become more challenging and demanding. He said when he came aboard, there were eight officers on staff; now there are seven, “and we’ve probably doubled in the work we do,” largely because of the continued popularity of hiking and motorized sports.

A recent rescue mission

That popularity has also resulted in a “boom” of search-and-rescue missions for Fish and Game, said Saunders, some of which end up being frustratingly fruitless, expensive and potentially dangerous to the searchers.

A recent example is a missing-hiker call that Region 1 received on April 23 from a Massachusetts woman who said her 70-year-old husband, who had a medical condition, had not returned from a planned summiting of Mounts Adams and Jefferson.

Fish and Game assembled a large team, including a Black Hawk helicopter, to search for the man, Christophe Chamley of Cambridge. It was later determined Chamley had decided to abandon his hike and instead to spend the night at the Omni Mount Washington Hotel.

Chamley said he tried to notify his wife of his plans, but she seemingly did not get his message. Fish and Game officials said they intend to bill Chamely for the cost of the search, which Saunders at the time called a total waste of resources.

He said diverting officers for the search led to a one-week delay in their stocking North Country ponds and lakes with fish.

When he steps down from Fish and Game, Saunders will take a part-time position with Coos County to oversee its OHRV enforcement effort.

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