Nov. 5 – John Caveney has spent much of his 70 years in the New Hampshire woods and along its rivers and lakes, catching fish, hunting deer and capturing animals – at one point he even found himself in a tree while watching a mother bear and her young circled below.
Caveney, from Spofford, is the Fish and Game Commissioner for Cheshire County. As the fall hunting season unfolds, he spent an hour with The Sentinel on Wednesday to talk about a life lived in close contact with New Hampshire’s flora and fauna.
He and his wife, Nancy, met in third grade and they began dating while he was studying forestry at the University of New Hampshire and she was attending school in Connecticut to become a dental hygienist. They have two adult daughters, Erin and Jennifer.
Two years ago, Governor Chris Sununu appointed Caveney to a five-year term on the commission that sets policies for conservation, protection and management of wildlife and habitats.
He joined the Commission after retiring in 2017 as Vice President and Forest Manager at Cersosimo Lumber Co. in Brattleboro, where he had worked for more than 40 years. Neil Dawson, the company’s chief financial officer, said he missed Caveney, whom he described as “one of the deans of forestry in New England.”
As Fish and Game Commissioner, Caveney has a duty to manage the state’s fish, game and marine resources. It is essentially a volunteer post, but he often raises questions, observations, or complaints from the public.
“People will call and want to know where to register a deer or turkey on a Sunday, and they’ll call a commissioner,” he said. “And of course people will call with problems, like the chicken coop just had the roof ripped off by the local black bear.”
Legislators are also reaching out with questions and comments from constituents, including on hunting and fishing seasons.
“There are people who feel like the Commission should be disbanded and reorganized, people who want a longer season, a shorter season, or no season at all,” Caveney said.
“You have the athletic crowd that buys licenses and enjoys being outside, fishing or hunting. And there are always those who feel that none of these activities should take place. You get calls from both sides.”
Black bear, deer, grouse and woodcock, elk, pheasant, small game, turkey and waterfowl are among the animals that can be hunted at certain times of the year.
Hunting on private property in New Hampshire is generally permitted unless otherwise noted, but some landowners, who have nothing inherently against hunters, do not want them to install live-action wildlife scouting cameras.
People with privacy concerns about these cameras could support legislation in the next legislative session to address the issue, Caveney said, adding that landowners also sometimes complain that tree hunters stay on private property for long periods of time.
Trespassing laws differ across the country. Some states do not allow hunters to go onto private land unless they have permission from the owner.
More than two-thirds of New Hampshire’s forest land is privately owned, according to the NH Division of Forests and Lands.
Hunting and fishing are cultural and traditional pursuits that resonate with the public, Caveney said.
“These traditions are simply imprinted in people’s current history and their distant history,” he said. “You might be fishing by the creek and you look up and there’s a deer looking at you.
“I might spend all day in the woods and not see a deer, but I might see a bobcat, a fisherman, and two coyotes.”
What goes on in the woods can have far-reaching effects in New Hampshire, which is 81 percent covered by forest. The NH Division of Forests and Lands says that percentage is second only to Maine nationally.
One thing that is noteworthy, Caveney said, is that in the first half of the 19th century many trees in New Hampshire were felled to make pastures during a boom in sheep farming. The forests returned when the boom broke, but many rock walls that formed during that time still stand.
Incredible work went into clearing fields and building these walls before the tractor age began.
“I remind people all the time that when they look at a rock face, at some point human hands have touched every single one of those rocks,” he said. “That should give you back pain right away. Ten kids and maybe a pair of oxen could help.”
Growing up in the Tilton-Northfield area, Caveney and his two brothers often had a fishing rod in hand. His father, William, worked for a paper manufacturer and his mother, Virginia, worked in a factory’s inspection department.
“We were next door to a small dairy farm and as kids we were never discouraged from being outside and we were never scolded for coming home with muddy sneakers,” he said. “As a little boy, I would go out with my bike, a fishing rod and a can of worms. I would catch trout, bring them home and my mom would cook them for us.”
Farmed by bears
One of the beauties of spending time outdoors is coming home with a story.
Caveney recalls gazing at a large, remote logging property in Vermont’s Green Mountains on a foggy October day 27 years ago that was growing cold, almost freezing. On the way back to his pickup truck, he passed the remains of an old colonial homestead in a clearing.
“I tilted my head to get under the branch of an apple tree and I looked to my right and there were two black objects moving downhill toward me at high speed,” he said.
It was a mother bear and her cub running toward him. He started walking himself and climbed onto a lower branch of a maple tree. He watched the bears come to him, the cubs frolicking and the mother sniffing. They left and then came back.
Finally he said, “Bear, go!”
The animals walked and disappeared from sight. He climbed down and went to his truck.
Rick Green can be reached at RGreen@KeeneSentinel.com or 603-355-8567.