Given the depleted state of newspaper budgets, investigative reporting is rare, so perhaps the Maine Warden Service was simply unprepared when Colin Woodard of the Portland Press Herald called about the undercover operation in Allagash filmed for the “North Woods Law” cable TV show.

That would be the most charitable explanation of the state agency’s egregious performance, which including stonewalling, special pleading, and a refusal to take seriously many plausible criticisms of its performance.

Opinions will naturally vary about Woodard’s story, which editors provocatively titled “North Woods Lawless.” That apparently referred to the authorized activities of an undercover agent, William Livezey, posing as an out-of-state hunter, who reportedly shot a deer out of season and consumed considerable quantities of alcohol — neither normally permitted among a game warden’s duties.

As soon as the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, overseeing the Warden Service, heard what Woodard wanted to know, it first requested questions in writing, then refused any response, even through its own attorney. It provided little of what was asked in numerous freedom of information petitions. This isn’t how state agencies should respond to legitimate requests.

The furor reached such a crescendo that Sen. Paul Davis, Sangerville Republican and co-chairman of the Legislature’s IF&W Committee, called an unusual out-of-session meeting to hear from Warden Service chief Joel Wilkinson, IF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, and freedom of information ombudsman Brenda Kielty.

If anyone was expecting a real inquiry, they were disappointed. Davis’ meeting consisted largely of him reading the entire story to Wilkinson and Woodcock and asking them to rebut it. This included Woodcock’s extraordinary claim that the Livezey angle was “fabricated,” though it was based on his own reports.

It didn’t occur to either Wilkinson or Woodcock that non-cooperation and denial is rarely an effective response to criticism, and the committee provided no reality test. Aside from circling the wagons, the session accomplished little.

It was a huge missed opportunity, because no one raised the far more significant question of why the Warden Service needs undercover operations at all. The problems with such law enforcement techniques, which often involve officials breaking the law to entice others to do the same, are most evident in the “war on drugs,” which has produced massive corruption in urban police forces since the 1970s.

The danger also exists in Maine, and IF&W’s activities are not reassuring. George Smith, former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, called the Warden Service’s actions “a disappointment,” and said, “We have frequently addressed these issues and there’s no real evidence that they are operating differently.”

Aside from the inevitable conflicts undercover operations involve, it’s doubtful they produce results remotely comparable to the expenses incurred. Like most state agencies, IF&W’s staff has shrunk steadily, with fewer and fewer wardens and biologists in the field.

This is an agency that, until recently, had a single biologist covering both deer and moose. It can’t provide a reliable moose count — for out-of-state hunters and wildlife viewers alike, Maine’s most important wildlife attraction. Why it should then be spending plentifully to arrest a few people for shooting the same animals out-of-season isn’t at all clear.

Traditional law enforcement puts officers in the field and has them patrol. In decades past, wardens were highly visible, and violations came from license checks and inspections of tagged deer and fishing creels. No one could object to these techniques.

Are the undercover operations, then, an attempt to make up for reduced staffing, to do by deterrence what can’t reliably be done in the field? If so, they’ve failed in that respect, too.

One might contrast the “cowboy” atmosphere surrounding armed undercover raids with law enforcement by another branch of natural resource officers, Maine’s forest rangers. They investigate timber theft, property damage and other violations comparable to the work done by fish and wildlife officers.

Forest rangers aren’t armed, and one of the Legislature’s best decisions this year was to keep it that way, though ballistic vests were provided. Rangers do their jobs without potentially lethal confrontations, and may provide a better example of how to protect non-human resources.

In its history, the Warden Service has seen 15 officers killed in the line of duty. No one has ever killed a forest ranger on the job, or even seriously threatened one.

Perhaps one of the few positive developments from the recent Warden Service controversy was Wilkinson’s cancellation of undercover work, largely because Livezey’s cover was blown. The Legislature ought to seriously consider whether it should keep it that way, permanently.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 31 years. Comment is welcomed at [email protected]

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.