Are female game wardens an endangered species?

The controversy over the undercover tactics of Maine game wardens, following a story in a Maine Sunday Telegram by investigative reporter Colin Woodard, led me to take a look back, diving into my file of stories, reports, and recommendations concerning the Maine Warden Service over the last 25 years. One issue has consistently been of concern.

Women have historically found it difficult to serve as Maine game wardens — not because they can’t do the job, but because they were treated so poorly by other wardens. Years ago a female warden filed a federal lawsuit against the Warden Service that was settled with no public disclosure of the settlement. Rumor had it that the female warden received a large financial payment.

Today, of 124 game wardens, only three (2 percent) are females. No female game warden has ever been promoted to a leadership position. Only two have ever made it to retirement.

Let’s take a look at the Maine State Police for comparison purposes. Of 330 troopers today, 24 (7 percent) are females. Eight are regular troopers, four are sergeants, four are corporals, four are detectives, and two are lieutenants.

Years ago, an outstanding female warden, who gave up in disgust after quite a few years in the Warden Service, sent me this message: “I am going to be candid with you because I do not think you can ‘fix’ them. What is in place is very old and engrained. The current administration is probably the biggest, most powerful clique that exists in the organization and I can’t believe I just said that to you.”

The only way I can see a shift occurring, and this is going to seem bold and probably ridiculous, would be to start from scratch. Impossible, right?

There were a handful of very intelligent wardens when I was there who were ready to step up to the plate if given the opportunity, however, they were only seen as a threat to the already existing power who did not want any change even though they may have professed such intentions. Smoke and mirrors.

The challenge will be to shift the energy (or encourage the existing) to a more open-minded, insightful, non self-fulfilling administration that can lead the way to a unified organization through leadership that encourages its work force to be all they can be and sees their true potential on an even basis and I would emphasize even. Law enforcement is already very stressful; it is even more stressful if the internal dynamics are dysfunctional.

When this warden was denied a promotion, she “realized, again, that I would never be able to go anywhere in the service and so any potential for moving up was not a reality. I needed to move on professionally and personally.” And she did, leaving the Maine Warden Service.

An outside review of the Maine Warden Service in 2007 reported that wardens were worried about their shifting mission, unhappy with their leadership, lacking an effective communications system, and uncertain of their future as a law enforcement organization. Wardens also offered a slew of complaints from inadequate pay to harassment by their supervisors.

Shortly after the report was issued, Joel Wilkinson was named to the colonel’s position. I had — and continue to have — great respect for Wilkinson. He set about to address the problems and steer a new course for the Warden Service.

In January I asked Wilkinson to tell me what he’s achieved on a list of initiatives he launched when he took over as colonel. I’m still waiting for his response, although he did, after a couple of months, send me a description of the process they now use to investigate complaints against game wardens. And I was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that they still investigate themselves. No outside impartial person is involved.

For decades, reviews, reports, recommendations, promises, plans, and personnel changes have failed to stimulate the significant changes needed in this law enforcement agency that is mired in the past. I was very disappointed that the colonel, when given the chance to tell us about his accomplishments at a special hearing of the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee called to question the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife about Woodard’s story, chose instead to simply deny and denigrate Woodard’s report. He did say the tactics used by the undercover warden in the case cited by Woodard would no longer be used. Essentially he said, “We did nothing wrong, and we’ll stop doing it.” That is completely unacceptable. Shortly after Woodard’s first column on the Warden Service was published, I posted this question in the Sportsmen’s Say Survey of my website (www.georgesmithmaine.com): Should Maine game wardens be allowed to break the law and to encourage others to break the law, in order to arrest law breakers?

The response was overwhelming. So far 832 people have answered the question. 778 (93.51 percent) said no, while just 41 (4.93 percent) said yes and 13 (1.56 percent) were not sure. That’s as definitive an answer as I’ve ever gotten since I started my Sportsmen Say Survey several years ago. It’s time for Colonel Wilkinson to tell us what he has achieved in addressing all of the Maine Warden Service’s problems raised over the years.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.