Deer driving law reinterpreted

The legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee has allowed the Maine Warden Service to reinterpret the law on driving deer, and by failing to clarify that law, has placed many Maine hunters in jeopardy. Captain Chris Cloutier informed the committee yesterday that driving deer is illegal even for two hunters.

For more than a decade, an exception in the deer driving law has provided that, “a group of 3 or more persons may hunt together as long as they do not use noisemaking devices.” The legislature’s intent was to make it legal for 2 or 3 hunters to drive deer, and that’s what legislators thought they did at the time.

Maine game wardens have never liked the law change but have not cited a group of 3 or fewer hunters for driving deer since the exception was added to the law.

The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s Pickering Commission – in its first project in 1998 to clarify and simplify Maine’s hunting laws – recommended that deer driving be legal for up to six hunters. The Commission’s members recognized that this is a common method of hunting in Maine, as well as other states, and noted that the law is widely ignored and disrespected here. SAM pushed the change through the legislature but had to settle for the 3 person limit.

DIF&W wrote the amended language. It is vague and poorly written, and we’ve been arguing about this ever since. Senator Dennis Dutremble and Representative Steve Wood tried to clarify the wording yesterday with an amendment to the law, but their effort did not win the support of other committee members who preferred to leave the existing wording in the statute.

Captain Cloutier did present a very interesting report, requested by Senator Anne Haskell, on deer driving laws in other states and the hunting accident incident rates in those states. Cloutier’s report listed 19 of the nation’s more popular hunting states where deer driving is legal, including New Hampshire and Vermont. New Hampshire limits driving to 6 hunters. Vermont has no limits.

I found Oklahoma’s deer driving law particularly interesting. Driving deer is legal there, “unless using smoke or fire.” In Kansas, deer drivers “must be on foot or horseback.” Some states even allow dogs to be used in deer drives.

The information on hunting accidents was also interesting. “Although it inherently seems to be a dangerous practice, Vermont’s statistics involving hunting related shooting don’t support that notion,” was the report received from that state.

Pennsylvania, which allows drives of up to 25 hunters, reported “no data to suggest that driving has a higher rate of (accidental shootings) than any other form of hunting.”  South Carolina reported “neither man driving nor dog driving has been a significant factor in hunting related incidents.”

Kansas, with no limits on deer driving, reported, “We have very few hunting related incidents involving big game hunters, and of those, the majority are self-inflicted wounds and falls from stands. Hunters shooting other hunters occurs most frequently (and almost exclusively) with upland bird hunters swinging on game birds or during turkey hunting.”

Missouri reported 12 “deer related incidents” in 2012, three of which occurred during a deer drive. “However, even in these incidents,” the state reported, “the primary cause of the incident was not necessarily the drive itself, but unsafe firearm handling practices or poor hunter judgment.”

Rhode Island, which restricts deer driving to five hunters, reported 2 fatalities in the last 20 years attributed to driving deer. In one, “a father had his son take off his hunter orange as they were going onto property they didn’t have permission to be on, and then shot the son by shooting at his white shirt.”

I was intrigued by the report from Wisconsin, which places no limits on the number of hunters engaged in a deer drive, but which also reported that “for the last 10 years, 39 percent of deer hunting incidents were the direct result of deer drives.” They did not report the actual number of incidents.

But here is where Wisconsin’s report got really interesting. “While it appears that deer drives are unsafe, (accidents) are usually the result of poor planning within the hunting group, lack of continued communication, shooting at running deer, and violating one of the four firearm safety rules. Through education, they can be a safe and effective method of harvesting deer if everyone in the group plans their hunt and hunts the plan.”

Nevertheless, despite all of this information and the clear intention of a previous legislature to allow deer driving in Maine for up to 3 hunters, some members of Maine’s IFW committee said they believe deer driving is unethical, others thought it unsafe, and now, in our state, it will be completely illegal, according to the law enforcement agency that is responsible for enforcing the law.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.