In the Line of Duty
Few people fully understand, or appreciate, the role that Maine’s Warden Service plays in safeguarding the state’s natural resou
- By: Rob Sneddon
Founded in 1880, the Maine Warden Service is the oldest conservation law enforcement agency in the nation. The state’s first game wardens were volunteers recruited to stop the wholesale commercial hunting and poaching operations that were then laying waste to Maine’s fish and game populations. Over the past 130 years the service has evolved into an elite team of professionals whose responsibilities have grown to include not only the enforcement of snowmobile and boating laws, but also curtailing the spread of invasive milfoil and arresting individuals who seek to sabotage Maine’s ecosystem by smuggling foreign species into our woods and waters. For their record of accomplishment and sacrifice, the editors of Down East are proud to award the thirty-second Down East Environmental Award to the men and women of the Maine Warden Service.
Questions. Always with the questions.
“If I stop for any reason,” says Maine Game Warden Neal Wykes of Naples, “someone will come up and ask me something within five minutes.”
It goes with the territory — which is considerable. Wykes’ beat, Wildlife Management District 15, stretches roughly from the White Mountain National Forest to Auburn, then southwest through Limington and Limerick to Newfield.
As Wykes arrives at Sebago Lake to begin a routine patrol, he notes that “there’s no [other game warden] between here and New Hampshire except for me. And there’s a lot of water. My district covers the northern end of Sebago Lake all the way up through the Songo River into Long Lake. And on top of that, I’ve got another fifteen bodies of water. I might not even get to every body of water over a summer.”
Wykes also has to cover a lot of ground, too, when it comes to his responsibilities. In addition to its never-ending pursuit of poachers [Down East, October 2007] the Warden Service also handles everything from catch-and-release of nuisance animals [see sidebar: “Wild Life”] to checking boats for compliance with Maine’s strict invasive-milfoil statutes, to search-and-rescue for missing children.
Suffice it to say that the Warden Service’s numbers are insufficient for such a sprawling mission (just ninety-five full-time game wardens). “It’s getting to the point where we’re so overwhelmed with everything else that we just have to squeeze [hunting and fishing enforcement] in whenever we can,” Wykes says.
Now factor in the average citizen’s sketchy understanding of the laws of nature, both literal and figurative, and the Warden Service’s ambiguous place in the enforcement hierarchy, and the public’s curiosity makes perfect sense. “People have questions that they’ve wondered about for a while but they never knew who to ask,” Wykes says. “Or they didn’t know how to get a hold of a game warden. A lot of people just don’t know where to find us.”
It’s not that the Maine Warden Service operates in secrecy. Or at least that wasn’t the intent. It’s just that the service has continually evolved since it was conceived as a sort of “green police” 130 years ago. The market for wild fish and game was much greater then than it is now, and many out-of-state visitors plundered Maine’s woods and waters for profit. Mainers responded with some of the country’s earliest conservation laws. Wrote a New York Times angling columnist in 1876: “Your correspondent has been greatly surprised at the superior intelligence with which the Maine people are caring for their sporting-ground,” adding with obvious envy that Maine had already taken steps to “prevent the causeless destruction which goes on in our New York lakes and woods.”
Enforcing Maine’s conservation laws was a big job then, and it has only grown bigger with time. “From the beginning, when we just dealt with moose and deer [poachers], our mission has grown just because of the recreational opportunities that Maine offers off-road,” says John MacDonald, a Warden Service corporal. “Any hunting or fishing opportunities, any motorized [off-road] vehicles, all of that falls under our jurisdiction for safety and enforcement. And hiking has become so popular with the Appalachian Trail. People can get lost. It’s our responsibility to manage those searches, at least when they get large.
“We’ve really developed a niche in search-and-rescue. It’s not just hikers and hunters and people who fish, it’s Alzheimer’s patients who may have wandered from nursing homes — even missing persons and fugitives.”
But by far the biggest change in the Warden Service since it formally began on March 9, 1880, involves oversight of recreational vehicles. In 2008, the Warden Service issued more summonses for snowmobile violations than for anything else: 847. For context, the service issued just twenty-nine summonses for trapping violations.
The disproportionate number of snowmobile citations is due in part to an increase in wintertime patrols along the border with Canada since the Department of Homeland Security was formed. But it’s also a function of simple mathematics. Maine has an estimated 13,000 miles of snow trails, which attract upward of 100,000 snow machines each winter. Says MacDonald, “Really, we could focus all of our time on snowmobiles.”
Or ATVs. Or boats. A paradox applies to recreational vehicles. In many ways, they’re more dangerous than automobiles — and yet the laws that govern them are more lax. For whatever reason, people think that there should be fewer rules of the road when there is no road. That makes safety enforcement a challenge. A sixth-grade girl could pilot a beefy bass boat across Sebago Lake at full throttle while her parents sip cocktails in the stern, and that family would be breaking no laws. There’s no open-container law for watercraft, no open-water speed limit, and kids as young as twelve are allowed to operate motorboats without restriction. Ten-year-olds can legally operate snowmobiles and ATVs, and while children between ten and sixteen are supposed to complete an ATV safety training course and ride only when accompanied by an adult, that doesn’t always happen.
So it’s no surprise that accidents often do happen. And when they do, preserving and reconstructing the scene can be difficult. “A lot of times with recreational vehicle [accidents] it’s hard to determine speeds because they don’t take place on roads, where you’d have clearly defined skidmarks,” says MacDonald, a member of the Warden Service’s forensic mapping team. “With a snowmobile, it could be snowing [and the scene gets covered] or it could be warm and the scene melts. And if it’s a boat crash, everything floats away or sinks. So [forensic mapping] actually helps us record boat accidents a lot better. If we find debris on the bottom we’ll set up something on the surface directly above it so we can map [the accident scene] just like we would on land.”
The Warden Service has evolved with the times in its investigation of conventional poaching cases, too. DNA testing has become routine. “I had a case five or six years ago where a guy killed six deer and didn’t register any of them,” MacDonald says. “Without that technology I really wouldn’t have been able to prove that he had six different deer. He could have told me it was just one deer — just a lot of it. But [DNA testing] can distinguish one deer from the next.”
Back at Sebago Lake, Neal Wykes still hasn’t made it from his state-issued Ford F-250 Super Duty to his boat to begin his patrol. Yet another person has approached him with yet another question. A man with a cartoonishly thick New York accent is taking his nine-year-old son fishing. Maine residents under sixteen and nonresidents under twelve may fish without a license, but the father wants to know if he needs a license just to accompany his son.
The short answer is no. But after nearly thirty years as a warden, Wykes knows that short answers are often inadequate. So, displaying the deftness that helped make him the 2006 Maine Warden of the Year, Wykes probes for a little more information. His tone is calm, conversational. How many rods will they be using? Just one. Will the boy actually be doing everything himself? Yes, the man says. Then he dangles a qualifier. “But you know how nine-year-olds are. Sometimes they get bored and wander off.”
“Well,” Wykes says after a pause, “if your son’s not with you and you’re standing there with a line in the water — you’re fishing.”
He doesn’t tell the man that he needs a license. He just helps the man make an informed decision.
A moment later Wykes gets a call on his state-issued cell phone. He grabs a yellow pad and a Bic pen, the lowest-tech pieces of equipment in his truck, which is outfitted with a laptop computer and a GPS along with a conventional police radio, emergency lights, and siren. There’s also plenty of stuff specific to the Warden Service’s mission, such as a decibel meter to help enforce the noise limit for powerboats.
And, like every full-time member of the Maine Warden Service, Wykes is armed. He carries a shotgun in the back of the truck and a SIG Sauer P226 .357-caliber semi-automatic handgun at his side.
Maine’s first game wardens had to supply their own guns. They received no training, no special equipment — not even a salary. Wardens, an 1881 report from Maine’s Commissioners of Fisheries and Game noted, “are expected to be sustained by enthusiasm alone in game protection, to abandon home and the occupations that give bread to their families, and go forth to the forest for one half the penalties they may obtain from captured and convicted law breakers, and the soul stirring privilege of shooting at sight any dog they may discover chasing deer.”
That high-horse directive invited confrontation. And backwoods Maine in the nineteenth century teemed with tough customers willing to accept the invitation. If contemporaneous accounts are to be believed, parts of the state were a sort of Down East Wild West — the town of Wesley in particular. An 1886 Boston Globe article described Wesley as having “a turbulent spirit,” and asserted that the town “had retained, amid many good citizens, some of the lawless sort.” Those lawless sorts had recently proposed that the town vote to nullify state game laws. The motion passed.
The Globe article, citing the Lewiston Journal as its source, included a harrowing account of a Maine game warden’s attempt to exercise the “soul-stirring privilege” of shooting a poacher’s dogs. “If [the warden] can’t draw the dogs away from the owners so as to poison them,” the Journal noted, “he waits until night when the men and the dogs have gone into camp. Stealing up softly, he flashes his dark lantern on the sleeper, and shoots down the dogs. He cannot arrest the poachers in the middle of the wilderness and drag them out single-handed, but he takes their names and arrests them when he gets a good chance.
“Everybody can see the danger in this business. The men, sleeping there with those dogs, have no fine moral scruples and would not feel very bad if a bullet from one of their guns should bore a hole in a game warden.”
In November 1886 the inevitable happened. Wardens Lyman O. Hill, of Machias, and Charles W. Niles, of Wesley, were gunned down at Fletcher Brook while trying to seize a suspected poacher’s dog.
Hill and Niles were the first two of fourteen members of the Maine Warden Service killed in the line of duty — the most of any branch of Maine law enforcement.
Both society and the Warden Service have come a long way since the 1880s. Nevertheless, says Corporal MacDonald, “We still have a handful of [violent encounters] each year. A lot of times the [suspect] is a convicted felon or they’re on probation, or maybe they’re growing marijuana and we get in the middle of that.
“But I think most people have a pretty high respect for game wardens. Most [poachers], when they’ve been caught, they just give it up. But then again, most of the people we encounter are sportsmen and -women, and most carry weapons of some type. And [given] the remoteness of where we check them, it probably runs through [a criminal’s] mind that they could get away with trying to escape, more than they might on a highway [stop].”
Today, all wardens must complete Basic Law Enforcement Training Program at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro. Wardens then receive an additional fourteen weeks of intensive training in techniques specific to the Warden Service, including a full week on search-and-rescue.
Improved safety has come in a slow, steady succession of steps, many of which seem obvious in hindsight. For one, wardens are no longer encouraged to shoot dogs.
For another, all wardens must know how to swim. That’s been a requirement only since 1972. That September, Warden Richard Varney died when his helicopter crashed in Maranacook Lake. Varney, who didn’t know how to swim, survived the crash but drowned in eight feet of water.
The Warden Service has benefited from exponential advances in equipment, too. Last February, Warden Gary Allen survived a plunge through the ice at Sebago Lake on an ATV. He was wearing a “float coat,” a Mustang survival snowmobile jacket filled with flotation material. “He said there was no question in his mind that that coat saved his life,” Neal Wykes says. “He went completely under — even his snowmobile helmet filled with water. Next thing he knew, he popped right back up on the surface.”
Wykes relates this story just before he boards his patrol boat, which is kept at a slip at the Point Sebago Resort. The boat, built by SAFE Boats International of Port Orchard, Washington, is an unnamed Coast Guard-style “T-Type” twenty-five-footer outfitted with twin Mercury 250-horsepower motors. Top of the line, in other words.
First impression of a routine Warden Service patrol of Sebago Lake: It’s fun. And Wykes confirms that it can be. But, he adds, “It’s not so fun being out here in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, looking for someone who didn’t know enough to come in.”
To look at Sebago Lake through Wykes’ eyes is to feel an almost paralyzing sense of responsibility. Danger lurks everywhere. And its prospective victims are often oblivious. Clueless Jet-Skiers who stare dumbly in response to the words “headway speed.” Kayakers who rationalize their potentially lethal negligence with a non sequitur: I don’t need a life jacket because I don’t have a motor. Or, as Wykes puts it, “The people most likely not to have life jackets are the people in boats that are most likely to tip over.” And on and on.
And that’s one lake on a quiet morning. Consider all the other lakes and ponds and rivers and streams, to say nothing of the hills and valleys and meadows and woods, stretched from here to New Hampshire, harboring creatures as small as black flies and as big as black bears. Now imagine that it’s up to you, and you alone, to not only protect all that from desecration, but also to keep people safe as they blunder through it, many with an ignorance that borders on the criminal.
You can only imagine how stressful that must be. And you can only imagine how many people can thank the Maine Warden Service for their lives. And yet a segment of the public still perceives game wardens as overofficious Barney Fifes intent on ruining people’s fun.
Even those who try to be respectful often do so in a backhanded way. After Wykes finishes his patrol, he’s walking back to his truck when he gets another one of those questions. A young man is considering a career in law enforcement. He wants to know how to get started. And this is how he broaches the subject with Neal Wykes, an armed, uniformed, and expertly trained graduate of the Maine Criminal Justice Academy who has placed himself in significant danger time and again in his three decades of public service: “I know you’re not really a cop, but . . . .”
In almost thirty years as a Maine Game Warden, Neal Wykes has had hundreds of encounters with nuisance animals – including some toothy visitors.
Maine Game Warden Neal Wykes devotes a significant portion of his time to nuisance-animal calls. In many cases the callers are a greater nuisance than the animals. “You can never really trust what you get for a call,” Wykes says. “A lot of people are just very uneducated about wildlife.”
For instance, there was the time Wykes received a call about an injured eagle — a high priority, given the eagle’s threatened status. “I get there,” Wykes says, “and it’s a partridge. You wonder: How did this turn into an eagle? You know those [callers] aren’t from Maine.”
Wykes says people from away account for many such wild goose — or partridge — chases. “They move up here from Connecticut or New York — from an area that I’d be scared to death to live in,” Wykes says. “And they’re scared to death because there’s a porcupine walking through their backyard. So they call us.”
Wykes laughs. “It’s entertaining. At times.”
The strangest visitor that Wykes ever encountered came from much farther away than New Hampshire.
“I got a call that there was an alligator in the farm pond at the Maine Audubon Society in Yarmouth,”
Wykes says. “I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But it was very much real.”
Wykes guesses that the alligator, which was about three feet long, was a pet that had simply grown too big to handle safely. Earlier this year, the Warden Service fielded a similar call about a Gaboon viper behind the Cinemagic theater in Saco.
The snake died. The alligator was more fortunate. “I think [the owner] purposely put it in the Audubon pond knowing that it would be properly taken care of,” says Wykes, who helped recover the alligator.
It was early spring, which made the gator rescue easier. “A guy with a wet suit just picked it up and brought it out because the cold had rendered it essentially motionless,” Wykes says.
Before being transported to Wild Animal Kingdom in York, the gator spent the night in a pet carrier — indoors. “That was a whole different alligator in the morning,” Wykes says. “He’d warned up, and he was sommme nasty. There was no holding onto him at that point.”
The air temperature was still cool enough that the alligator had mellowed again by the time it had completed the trip to York in the bed of Wykes’ truck.
While Wykes has relocated many a bear and even an alligator without incident, he’s been less fortunate with skunks. Typically, trouble starts when Wykes tries to live-trap a nuisance raccoon. “Skunks always seem to beat the ’coon to the feed,” he says. “And you find out just how far their spray can actually reach. It’s twenty to twenty-five feet, and highly accurate.”
Adds Wykes, “I’ve been full-blown sprayed about three times. And it only takes once to gain a lot of respect for a skunk.”
- By: Rob Sneddon