Problems in the Maine Warden Service
Should you give in to hope or firmly remind yourself that the best predictor of the future is the past? I wish I’d answered that question before double-clicking the attachment in George Smith’s email last week.
Smith is the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (and writes a blog for this Web site). The working title of his column for the September issue of the Maine Sportsman is “Problems Fester in Maine Warden Service.”
Now maybe you’re thinking, “So what else is new?” Problems are always festering in the Warden Service. For nearly two decades, Smith and I have been writing about those problems, and wardens have hated us for it. My co-workers used to joke that if a game warden ever walked into the newspaper they’d duck under their desks. After a warden (one I’d never met before) ranted and raved at me on an Allagash trip, my photographer wondered what his defensive responsibilities would be if a warden actually struck me.
In truth, Smith and I were just in similar positions – a last resort for people, including wardens themselves, who have been harmed by those festering problems. In the September Maine Sportsman, Smith focuses on a 2007 management review of the Maine Warden Service, which he finally succeeded in prying from Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner Danny Martin after a two-year struggle.
You’ll have to read Smith’s column to get the full picture, but he says the report concludes “wardens are worried about their shifting mission, unhappy with their leadership, lacking an effective communications system, and uncertain of their future as a law enforcement organization. They also had a slew of other complaints from inadequate pay to harassment by their supervisors . . . The findings in the latest review offer no new insights into the long-standing and festering problems in the Maine Warden Service. For more than a decade, reviews, reports, recommendations, promises, plans, and personnel changes have failed to deliver the significant changes needed in this law enforcement agency that is mired in the past.”
No surprises there, but that’s just the cold, sterile view. For me, Smith’s column stirred up memories that are still red-hot. Back in the early 1990s, I believed the wardens who said the complainers were just malcontents and misfits, angry at being pinched. And some of them were. But when I started really listening, I found far too many people were mistreated, including wardens themselves.
There were and still are good wardens and bad wardens, but, as one elderly hunter asked me, how do you tell the difference when one comes up to you in the woods? Another sportsman described the attitude that defines the bad ones: “If they can make you shake in your boots when they show up, then it’s a perfect world for them,” he told me.
I’ve spent many, many hours listening to bad warden stories on the phone and in diners all over Maine. People often arrived with a stack of papers to document each step of their personal tragedy. After a decade or so, I didn’t even need the paperwork. I knew the patterns so well, my stomach clenched before the punch lines were spoken.
These people were angry and bitter, but also shocked and bewildered. It wasn’t just the humiliation, inconvenience and cost. They also lost something precious – their ability to enjoy the Maine outdoors. I often felt like a grief counselor.
Even after I left newspapers in 2002, the bad warden stories kept coming. But it was Paul Jacques – before he became IF&W’s deputy commissioner – who convinced me to embark on the worst story of all. My husband and I even started a Web site in 2005, because there was no place else to tell it. And I still think telling that story was the right thing to do, even though it was exactly like poking a rattlesnake with a sharp stick.
This fall marks the tenth anniversary of the worst wildlife crime in Maine history. The Soldiertown moose killings poisoned friendships, changed lives and, even though some are convinced they know who did it, remain unsolved. The statute of limitations has expired, but people still wonder how someone could shoot nine moose and two deer and get away with it.
If I were a “killer dog” reporter, bent on exposing wrongdoing all day every day, the warden service would have been a godsend. But I just don’t have the right personality. I became a reporter because I enjoy learning about people and trying to understand why they do what they do. In fact, former editors have complained that I never met a story or a person I didn’t like. I only wish that were true.
I believe as strongly as ever that the Maine Warden Service needs to be reformed. But I just couldn’t keep hearing those stories – not without being poisoned myself. And it was George Smith who helped me come to that conclusion a few years ago, when I had asked why he was staying on the sidelines, instead of pushing for reform.
“We already did that, Roberta,” he said, “and it didn’t work.”
And, as the latest management review shows, nothing has changed. Bill Vail, former IFW commissioner and an ex-warden, warned me years ago the Warden Service would never change from within. And others, including many wardens, have told me time after time that the Warden Service will never change at all. And maybe they’re right.
I still believe it should change and, like Smith, I’m still hoping. But it won’t happen until someone takes power – in the warden service, IF&W, the legislature, or the governor’s office – who has the knowledge, courage and authority to succeed where so many have promised and failed.
I hope I live to see it happen.