TV fame hasn't helped Fish and Game with hiring more officers

New Hampshire Union Leader
June 18. 2018 11:29PM
Col. Kevin Jordan, chief of law enforcement, says Fish and Game has struggled for years to fill conservation officer openings. (Dave Solomon/ Union Leader)

CONCORD — “North Woods Law: New Hampshire” on the Animal Planet network has made reality TV stars out of conservation officers who work for New Hampshire Fish and Game, but has done little to improve the agency’s recruitment.

Officials had hoped the debut of the program in 2017 would help fill its ranks, but things have actually gotten worse since then, according to Col. Kevin Jordan, chief of law enforcement at Fish and Game.

He has fewer positions authorized in his budget, and is having a hard time filling what he has. The remaining ranks are stretched thin, as a smaller number of officers has to cover wider swatches of territory, amid an increasing demand for ATV enforcement and hiker rescues.

“It’s a big concern,” said Jordan in a recent interview. “The workload increases, but their pay has not, so it creates a situation where they are working harder and longer, and doing it for the same money. Morale-wise, that can have an effect.”

It should come as no surprise, according to Jordan, that the turnover rate is higher than in the past.

“I’ve lost four guys that have left for other jobs over a span of the last five or six years,” he said. “It’s not huge, but that’s unusual for New Hampshire Fish and Game. That never happened before. Historically, we’d lose one, maybe two every five years to somewhere else.”

That somewhere else is often another law enforcement job. Young men and women with no criminal history or drug use who pass a physical fitness test and a written test and graduate from the N.H. Police Standards and Training Academy are hard to come by these days. Those who make it are aggressively recruited.

“People are jumping around more today than they ever did,” says Jordan. “You get a lot of money and time invested in them to do these more complicated jobs, only to have them leave five years into their career.”

Openings in every district

Jordan has 10 vacancies he’s now trying to fill out of 42 authorized positions. He’s down three officers in District 5 (most of Rockingham and Merrimack counties); two in District 1 (Coos County); two in District 2 (Carroll and Belknap counties); and one each in District 3 (Grafton and Sullivan counties); District 4 (Cheshire and most of Hillsborough counties); and District 6 (coastal Rockingham and Strafford counties).

“It’s bad,” says Fish and Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau. “These people are very hard to find. The other problem is, we are stuck with the state’s pay scale. Towns aren’t. You can make a lot more money as a cop in Portsmouth and not have to work weekends lugging people down off Mount Washington. We can’t compete. It takes a certain individual who really wants to do this.”

The pay range for a conservation officer trainee is $44,491 to $58,968. After they complete their training year successfully, they become a conservation officer with a salary range of $48,152 to $63,939, according to the Fish and Game public information office.

With the shortage, the department has to prioritize calls for conservation officers. “Public health and safety are always going to be first,” says Normandeau. “So that means things are going to back up when there’s a search or rescue, because there’s no one else out there to do what would be considered a game warden’s real job … making sure people aren’t poaching or doing other bad things.”

“It’s like triage,” he said. “You’re not going to tell people, ‘We know you’re up on the mountain about to die, but I’m going to check fishing licenses.’”

Setting priorities

Jordan worries that enforcement of wildlife rules and regulations is taking a hit, and the department’s capacity for search and rescue is limited.

“Both of those are a concern,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m ready to say either one has been negatively affected, but I will tell you that calls for service now require more response time as we make emergencies our top priority. If you call for a game warden because of a wildlife issue, the response time is longer than it has ever been.”

The department has employed a variety of strategies to deal with the workforce shortage, such as removing all non-essential functions from the conservation officers’ workload. “Traditionally conservation officers led a lot of fish stocking,” said Normandeau. “But we’re trying to change that, because every time you have a hatchery truck ready to roll, they’re called out on a search and it messes up the whole stocking scheme.”

If there’s any solace in the situation for Jordan and Normandeau, it’s knowing they are not alone. “Any magazine you pick up today about this field, they’re talking about recruitment,” says Jordan. “This is a big challenge for all of us … recruiting good people and keeping them.”

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