Down East 2013 ©
Hunting is the safest thing you can do outdoors in Maine. A lot of people don’t believe that, including hunters. But it’s true.
Hunters are justifiably proud of the work we’ve done to make hunting safe, particularly for nonparticipants. In my fifty years of hunting in Maine, hunters have killed only two nonhunters.
Each of those deaths shook us to the very core of our hunting heritage, and reminded us of the tremendous responsibility each of us carries into the woods each fall to hunt safely.
In 2006 a muzzle-loading hunter killed a young lady in western Maine. At that time, I wrote the following column that I have updated for you, with the special hope and prayer that we will have an accident-free hunting season this fall.
The grief was unimaginable. An eighteen-year old girl was dead, a muzzle-loading hunter responsible.
On December 8, 2006, behind her Paris home, Megan Ripley was killed. Anger was to be expected, no matter what the circumstances, and hunting suffered the backlash of community concerns.
On December 9, I was besieged by media calls wanting my comments on the shooting – not unexpected given my role as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. I returned no calls, certain that anything I said would sound defensive and be entirely unsatisfactory.
With a deep sense of irony, I went hunting. Sitting in the woods, surrounded by snow-covered trees, I offered a prayer for the Ripley family and the hunter and his family. With plenty of time to think about this terrible tragedy, in that peaceful setting, I reached the following conclusion.
The hunter made an inexcusable mistake. Here’s what Maine’s target identification law requires: “While hunting, a hunter may not shoot at a target without, at that point in time, being certain that it is the wild animal and wild bird sought. A reasonable and prudent hunter always bears the risk of loss of legitimate prey to avoid the risk of the destruction of human life.
“A reasonable and prudent hunter neither disregards the risk of causing the death of another human being nor fails to be aware of that risk as a consequence of misidentification. A reasonable and prudent hunter… bases identification upon obtaining an essentially unobstructed view of the head and torso of the potential target. This visual sighting is the most critical target-determining factor… (and must exist when) the hunter takes aim and is making the final preparation to shoot.”
The law requires other factors to be considered as well, including “the distance to the target, surrounding or intervening terrain and cover, lighting and weather conditions, the hunter’s own ability to hear and see, the hunter’s own experience and the proximity of other persons in the hunter’s immediate vicinity.”
There is more to this law that is really quite specific about what must be considered before the hunter shoots at a deer. But to me, the most important thing is the requirement that we pass up a shot at what we think might be a deer, perhaps are even certain is a deer, rather than risk harm to another person.
This requires us to pass up deer when the shot would go toward and might reach a house or road. It is absolutely essential that the hunter know where his bullet will go if the deer is missed.
Mark Latti, at that time the spokesman for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, had the unenviable job of commenting on the Ripley tragedy, and I thought his words were just right. He noted the exceptional safety record of hunting in Maine – this shooting death was only the second instance in eighteen years where a nonhunter was killed by a hunter, and the first hunting-related death since 2004.
In the 1940s and 1950s, as many as twenty hunting fatalities occurred each season. Sportsmen are justifiably proud to have made hunting one of the safest outdoor activities in Maine.
But these are Latti’s words that rang true for me: “This is not to sugarcoat this tragedy by any means. Because that’s what this is – a horrific tragedy, and I was just sickened by it – all of us here were.”
That’s what I would have said, if I had returned those media calls.
The reaction against hunting was strong. Some say they’ll post their land. Others call for a reduced deer season. Many noted that the public should be made more aware that a two-week muzzle-loading season follows the regular November firearms deer season. And some said the public should be required to wear blaze orange during the deer seasons, just like hunters are.
But here’s the bottom line. While it is recommended that you wear blaze orange during the firearms seasons, you should not have to do that to be safe in your woods or anywhere else.
The hunter who killed Megan Ripley pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to two years in jail with all but thirty days suspended. His two years of probation expired in July of this year.
He agreed to surrender his hunting license privilege for life and to speak at hunter safety courses. The Ripley family agreed to the sentence.
On December 6, two days before the Ripley girl was killed, Maine Senate President Beth Edmonds, surprised to learn I was still hunting deer in December, said she was unaware of the muzzle-loading season. I told her not to worry, she was very safe outdoors in Maine regardless of the season.
I was right. And I was wrong.