READFIELD — A years-old conflict between a cattle farmer and town officials who say his animals are escaping frequently, endangering motorists, has escalated and the state is being asked to step in.
The farmer, Edward Munson of Winthrop, denies negligence and said the town’s concerns are overblown.
Town Manager Stefan Pakulski said the town has clashed with Munson ever since he began raising cattle on a pasture bought in Readfield in late 2007. Pakulski and Animal Control Officer Karen Peterson said improper farming practices have lead to Munson’s cattle continuously fleeing and wandering across routes 17 and 135.
Walter Whitcomb, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said the department will be sending a letter to the town and Munson alerting them that Munson has lost his right-to-farm protection because of the reported incidents. That doesn’t have an immediate effect on the situation, but Munson could face greater personal and property liability in court, Whitcomb said.
“Our actions will be to watch the situation. There’s nothing else pending,” he said.
The department would take more action if there reports of animal cruelty, which Whitcomb said doesn’t appear to be the case.
Pakulski, in a letter sent Nov. 2 to Whitcomb, pleaded with state officials to help solve the problem, keep the public safe and ensure Munson is properly caring for his cattle.
“If we do nothing to stop this terrible situation from continuing, then we are partly responsible for any tragedy that unfolds because of it,” Pakulski wrote.
But Munson said there isn’t an issue with his herd of 80 cattle escaping. Munson said one cow got loose, and no cattle have gotten out since he brought the cow to his home in Winthrop. He said town officials have lied about how many cattle have escaped in the past, exaggerating the number of days it’s happened.
“All they’re trying to do is start trouble. It was one cow the whole time. Another time it was two babies,” Munson said.
Peterson said that although the last few complaints involved the cow, different ones have escaped before — sometimes as many as five or six.
“I’m sure he feels like we’re being heavy handed,” she said. “Our perspective is a little different, to put it that way.”
Readfield Selectwoman Sue Reay, who lives across the street from the pastures, said it’s been more than one animal. “There was a day that I had 12 to 15 cattle down on my lawn,” she said.
Asked this past week if any more cows will escape, Munson said that he did not care.
“I’d like to see that whole herd get out. That would tickle me. Then they’d have something (to complain about),” he said.
Munson said the pasture’s fencing was in poor condition when he bought the property and he’s spent $8,000 in repairs since then.
In December, Augusta District Court ruled that Munson’s cattle had been found crossing public roads or trespassing on private property on five or more days within a 30-day period or three or more days within a seven-day period. The court ordered him to meet with town officials and make necessary repairs.
Munson didn’t do that, and court ruled this May that Munson had failed to comply with the previous order. The regularity of the complaints were inconsistent with Munson’s claim that the fencing was consistently maintained, according to a court document. Munson was ordered to pay more than $4,000 to the town in legal fees and penalties for not complying.
Pakulski said Munson finally agreed to begin paying the town $50 a month starting in January.
Pakulski said that although there hasn’t been any reports of loose cattle since Nov. 3, the animal control officer was called 23 times in September and October for Munson’s cattle escaping. He said the town has spent more than $11,000 since July 2011 in legal fees, animal control officer responses and signs put up to warn vehicles of possible crossing cattle.
He hopes the streak of cattle not escaping will continue, but said his experience over the last five years indicates otherwise.
“It doesn’t matter what we’ve tried to do in the past. It was continuing to happen repeatedly,” Pakulski said.
Whitcomb said taking legal action against Munson again is the best course of action, but he understands the town’s hesitation considering Munson’s past refusal to pay.
Department staff have visited Munson’s farm multiple times over the year in response to specific complaints, Whitcomb said, but he didn’t know how many times.
Peterson and Pakulski both said the town has done everything it can do to help Munson control his cattle and that the cattle escape because they don’t have enough grass or other feed.
“I think it’s because, literally, the grass is greener on the other side,” Peterson said.
She said the cattle often escape by leaning into the fence, trying to eat grass on the other side, until a post breaks. Even after pointing out problem areas to Munson, Peterson said he doesn’t repair them quickly enough.
“I think the town has gone over and above what we can do,” she said. “I’m still personally frustrated that it doesn’t seem to have taken care of the problem.”
The animal control officer before Peterson, Ronald Merrifield of Wayne, said he dealt with the same issue before Peterson took over at the beginning of 2011. The town sent Munson a letter in 2008 citing repeated escapes of the cattle.
Whitcomb said that the department hopes the problem will be solved with Munson now feeding the herd supplemental hay with the winter approaching.
Peterson said she wants Munson to take better care of his animals for the safety of motorists and for the welfare of the animals.
“The main thing is if he can keep his cows on the right side of the fence, I’ll be happy,” she said. “And I’m sure his cows will be happy.”
Paul Koenig — 621-5663