Colin Woodard is an outstanding award-winning reporter, nominated last year for a Pulitzer, and we are very lucky to have him in Maine. After more than a year of research, and a lot of frustration, his report, North Woods lawless, published on May 8 in the Maine Sunday Telegram, is outstanding, provocative, and worthy of lots of discussion, hopefully leading to significant changes in the way the Warden Service does its job.
Over the years I’ve shared Colin’s frustration with the refusal of the Warden Service to provide requested information. Last January, for example, I asked Colonel Joel Wilkinson to update me on a list of initiatives he launched when he took over as Colonel. I’m still waiting for that, although Joel did, after a couple of months, send me a description of the process that they now use to investigate complaints against game wardens. And I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that they still investigate themselves. No outside impartial person is involved.
Many years ago, with the support of the legislature, I got the State Police to take a look at how wardens investigate complaints. The State Police offered great recommendations, modeled on the way they perform investigations of complaints against state troopers, and the Warden Service announced that it would implement those recommendations, but they never did.
If you have not read Colin’s lengthy and impressive report, you should do it now. You can access it here. I’ve got a few thoughts to share with you about the report.
First, the massive invasion of Allagash village by game wardens was way over the top, especially when you consider the final list of prosecutions. And inviting the TV production crew from Northwoods Law to participate was wrong, particularly when they were invading homes and questioning some people who would never be charged with a violation of law.
Second, it is very wrong for a game warden to break the law, and encourage others to break the law, in order to arrest someone. Would you expect a State Police officer to rob a bank, with others, in order to arrest the others? I think not. If this issue is not addressed, and this practice ended, I will propose legislation next session to stop it.
Third, the Warden Service should have been much more cooperative in providing Colin with the information he requested. What were they – and what are they – hiding? Don’t they work for us? And aren’t we entitled to know everything about what they are doing on our behalf?
I was surprised to see that Colin didn’t raise the issue of abuse of women wardens. Some of you may remember a federal lawsuit that a female warden won, claiming she was abused by other wardens. I know another female warden who stuck it out for 10 years, then quit in disgust, unable to take the abuse any longer.
I don’t know if Joel has fixed this problem, but I do know there are still very few women wardens.
Mount Vernon Poachers
An undercover warden hunted for a couple of years with a group of poachers from Mount Vernon and Vienna a few years ago, and they were all prosecuted. One of the deer they poached was shot in my backyard.
But the minimal fines and jail time that these poachers ended up getting was very disappointing. And I think you will agree, in the case reported by Colin, that the fines and jail time were minimal compared to the offenses.
Great Game Wardens
Over the years we’ve had some outstanding game wardens, and we have outstanding game wardens serving us today. Unfortunately, there are also abusive game wardens who work with little supervision and control.
I have only once in my life made a complaint against a game warden. It was many years ago. My son Josh was 8 years old, and we’d just come up out of the South Branch of Trout Brook in Baxter Park, and were walking up the Perimeter Road when Josh spotted someone hiding behind a tree in the woods.
I looked where he was pointing and sure enough, there was a game warden spying on us. I waved at him, hollered hello, and encouraged him to come on out. He did, and when he walked into the road, without any greeting, he said, “See your license.”
So I dug out my license and showed it to him, telling him a little bit about the great fishing we’d enjoyed. He looked at my license, handed it back, and said, “See your creel.” Well, I didn’t have a creel, and when I said that, he pointed to Josh’s belt, where my son had a fanny pack with snacks and fishing lures.
I told Josh to take off the fanny pack and hand it to the warden, which he did. The warden zipped it open, took a look inside, zipped it back up, and tossed it at Josh. Then, without another word, he started walking up the road. When I told him we’d be glad to give him a ride to his truck, he just kept on walking, never looking back.
When we got home, I went in to make a complaint to the Colonel, who sat there for a long time telling me astonishing stories about this warden, who had been abusing sportsmen and his position for his entire career. “But don’t worry,” said the Colonel. “He’s retiring in a few months.” He’d been bad for his entire career, and still made it to retirement.
While the State Police fire officers on a regular basis, the Warden Service is well known for never firing anyone.
Colonel Joel Wilkinson was an outstanding warden and a good choice for Colonel. I know he has tried to reform the Warden Service, and I wish he had responded to my request, made in January, to tell me what he’d achieved. If he ever does, I’ll be happy to share that with you.
At the very least, I hope he doesn’t respond to Colin’s article with a defensive, fact-blocking response. We need to know more, a lot more, and we need real positive change. I think Joel can do that, but I don’t know if he will. We shall see.
Colin’s report raises a number of serious questions that should be examined and investigated by an outside independent body. Let’s hope someone steps up, inside or outside the agency, to get this done.
In the Sportsmen Say Survey section of my website, I am hoping you will answer this question: Should Maine game wardens be allowed to break the law and to encourage others to break the law, in order to arrest law breakers?
You can access the survey here. Thanks!