WINTER HARBOR — With “North Woods Law” a wrap, Game Warden John MacDonald is out spreading the word about his agency to potential recruits and the general public.
MacDonald, a corporal with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said in a talk at the Schoodic Institute that recruitment has increased 400 percent since the show was aired by “Animal Planet.”
“North Woods Law” featured 75 episodes over four years and featured game wardens in their everyday jobs, although the agency retained editing rights.
Prior to the show, about 150 people would be applying to be game wardens in any given year. “Now it’s 750 to 1,000,” MacDonald said.
The agency also saw an increase in followers on its Facebook page — from 20,000 to 105,000 — along with up to 1 million “hits” online.
MacDonald said he began routinely receiving calls from news outlets such as “Good Morning America” and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
“Social media is a very, very powerful tool,” he said.
Camp North Woods, which the department initiated in 2015, is a direct result of the growth of interest in the show.
The camp is designed to provide youth and their families with opportunities to learn lifelong outdoor skills and become educated about the importance of sustaining Maine’s natural resources, according to the agency.
The camps are held at and hosted by the University of Maine 4-H Camp and Learning Center at Bryant Pond in Bryant Pond, Maine.
Among the staff are game wardens, fisheries and wildlife biologists and recreational safety coordinators.
The coed camp is held for two separate weeks in July for children 8-10 years old and then 10 to 12 years old.
The 200 campers accepted are selected in a lottery held in April. Seventy percent of the campers are from Maine and the remainder from out of state.
MacDonald said he was assigned to oversee the television show, and his focus now is on recruitment and educating the public about what the department does.
He said originally the show was to be re-enactments of prior game warden investigations and actions, but it felt false and the game wardens did not want to participate.
MacDonald said the agency agreed to live filming with editing rights before it was aired.
The show required approval from Governor Paul LePage, who was not a big fan, as well as the state attorney general.
MacDonald said the department was not paid for the show because it is not allowed to accept any funds.
“That’s good because you don’t want to be in for something like that for the money,” he said. “The most important thing was review and editing rights.”
The show ended in 2015, months before a Portland Press Herald story that suggested the presence of television cameras influenced the Maine Warden Service’s response to a poaching sting in 2015.
Gov. Paul LePage said he was instrumental in ending “North Woods Law” in Maine because he thought it was unseemly and presented Maine in a bad light.
However, MacDonald said the series achieved the agency’s objectives — which were increased recruitment and exposure of game wardens’ work to the public.
Several Sumner Memorial High School students, mostly from the school’s Marine Pathways program, attended the program.
One student asked MacDonald to talk about some of the highlights of his nearly 20 years as a game warden.
MacDonald related two stories.
The first was an episode from his earliest days as a deputy game warden.
He was asked to look for fishermen illegally fishing for smelt in a stream in Waldoboro.
MacDonald, watching the stream bank through a set of binoculars, saw a truck arrive at 11:15 p.m.
The truck left and came back soon after, this time with no headlights on.
“I had zero experience,” said MacDonald. He crept forward and shouted: “Freeze, game warden!”
MacDonald said the two fishermen spilled two buckets loaded with the silvery fish.
“Don’t bother moving,” he said, “you’re surrounded.”
“It was $1,000 worth of smelts,” MacDonald said. “That was one of my first big ones.”
Another incident, also related to the illegal fishing for smelts, occurred in an unmarked van with a few empty beer cans visible to establish his credibility as a scofflaw.
MacDonald started fishing when two men — the two the agency had been looking for — approached.
“’How’s the fishing?’” the man asked MacDonald. Told it was great, the man went on to say: “We’ve been doing this forever. The game wardens are never around.”
“I have to stop this fun,” MacDonald replied. “I’m a game warden.”
MacDonald said the toughest part of the job is dealing with fatalities and telling the families involved.
In one instance, he said, the crew filmed the aftermath of the drowning of a teenager on the Kennebec River.
Although the youth’s parents allowed the film to be used, the youth’s biological mother was notified later and said she would not allow the footage to be aired.
The incident was pulled from the show before it was aired.
Asked if his job was at all dangerous, MacDonald said one of the greatest current hazards are ticks carrying Lyme disease.
Several game wardens, he said, have been treated for Lyme disease.
But the human predators remain highest on the list of possible complications in the woods.
“It’s people we’re most concerned about,” MacDonald said. “They’re unpredictable.”
Asked what the department looks for in a new recruit, MacDonald said someone who appreciates hunting and fishing, is physically fit, a hard worker and well spoken.
Game wardens, he said, need to be able to segue between dealing with serious violators and chatting with excited children who have just caught their first fish.
“The most important thing is to hire good people,” he said.