The Maine Warden Service has been having a hard time lately. You have to admire the wardens’ dedication to protecting Maine’s wildlife. And it obviously takes courage to approach people in the woods when you know they are armed. But the warden service has given itself a series of black eyes the past couple of years, even as wardens themselves have become TV stars.
I’m a fan of “North Woods Law,” the Animal Planet TV reality show in which camera crews follow Maine wardens around in the woods. As with all real-life cop shows, I find it problematic that law enforcement officers have camera crews with them, both because it does not seem safe and because it doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of justice. But voyeurism trumps virtue. Watching the exploits of wardens Tim Spahr, Rick LaFlamme, Kris McCabe and Pete Herring is one of my guilty pleasures.
The warden service began to lose some respect in 2014, however, when game wardens went on television to oppose the referendum to ban bear baiting. Despite what a judge decided, it struck many people as unethical – if not illegal – to use taxpayer dollars and state employees to oppose a citizen-initiated ballot issue. It’s also difficult to take someone seriously as a professional who argues that, unless we feed them 55-gallon drums of donuts and molasses, marauding bears will be roaming the backyards of suburbia.
After the bear baiting referendum, I began to see “North Woods Law” in a slightly different light. What am I supposed to think, for instance, when a game warden spends an entire program tracking down a hunter who dumped a few bushels of apples in the woods to attract deer when I just saw his colleagues arguing that public safety demanded that we feed bears buckets of goo? In backwoods (or is it backwards) Maine, it’s legal to bait bears but not deer.
The Maine Warden Service is now in the news, of course, because of North Woods Lawless, the Portland newspaper’s investigative series about a warden service sting operation. The allegations are that an undercover warden went around the state plying hunters with alcohol, encouraging them to poach deer, and even shooting deer illegally himself. The sting operation led to a commando-style raid on a family of poachers in Aroostook County that was clearly made-for-TV and way out of proportion to the crime.
Since the sting operation was reported, the warden service has refused Freedom of Information Act requests for documents, denied any wrongdoing and, worst of all, even refused to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing.
Gov. Paul LePage has turned himself inside out over the matter, condemning both North Woods Lawless as “a disservice to the state” and “North Woods Law.”
“I, quite frankly, was part of being very critical of the show. I didn’t like it,” LePage said. “I didn’t think it was giving Maine a good image. And I had more to do with it being canceled than any sting operation.”
“North Woods Law” apparently has two more seasons before the producers start following game wardens around the woods of New Hampshire instead.
Past “North Woods Law” episodes have documented the search for Geraldine Largay, the 66-year-old Tennessee woman who wandered off the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2013. Largay was last seen July 22, 2013. The search for her was called off on July 30, but she lived another three weeks before dying of starvation and exposure. Her body was finally found in October of 2015 less than 3 miles from where she went missing. The discovery of Largay’s body was filmed by the “North Woods Law” camera crew.
The Maine Warden Service’s 1,500-page report on the failed search for Largay hasn’t helped much either. The report is essentially a blame-the-victim narrative that faults Largay for not knowing how to read a compass, not carrying a GPS or emergency location device and for staying in one place, which is what you’re taught to do when you get lost in the woods. Remember Donn Fendler’s “Lost on a Mountain in Maine”? It would be helpful if the warden service reported on what it might have done differently to find a hiker who only wandered a couple of miles off the AT.
If the Maine Warden Service wants to regain public confidence, it needs to become more accountable to the people of Maine. That might mean, among other things, realizing it’s not above the law, complying with media FOIA requests and cooperating with any independent investigation of its undercover operations. No investigation has been announced, but without one the Maine Warden Service is going to continue to function under a cloud of suspicion.