In the last 31 years, three Maine women were fatally shot by hunters while on their own property.

Each death was an avoidable tragedy, and each time the incidents raised questions about Maine law regarding hunting access to private land.

However, there has never been enough support to change Maine’s tradition of open access, and there shouldn’t be now. Instead, the focus should be on hunter safety, which has been shown in the past to greatly reduce the risk of being in the Maine woods in the fall.

The issue came up again in September as a Hebron man was sentenced after pleading guilty to manslaughter in the death of Karen Wrentzel, who was shot while digging for gemstones on her land in October 2017.

Wrentzel, just like Karen Wood in 1988 and Megan Ripley in 2006, was mistaken for a deer by a hunter whom she never knew was using her property — under Maine law, hunters can use private property without permission unless it is posted otherwise.

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After each shooting, people understandably have wondered if changing the law — if requiring hunters to get permission from landowners — would save lives.

But Mainers are given nearly free reign to hunt on public lands for a reason. About 94 percent of land in Maine is privately owned, and about half of that land is open to the public, accounting for about 10 million acres on which Mainers not only hunt but also hike and snowmobile, among other recreational pursuits.

While most hunting advocates advise hunters to get permission, it is not always easy. In some cases, landowners may not want to be bothered. Some areas are made up of many small lots, making it hard to know when a hunter goes from one owner to the next. The deer being hunted certainly don’t know the boundaries.

Requiring permission as a matter of course may work well in some areas, but not all.

And while one can see how some sort of face-to-face meeting may have caused the hunters in the fatal shootings to think twice about pulling the trigger because they would have known someone was around, the absence of one wasn’t the reason those women died.

Instead, they died because the hunters failed to identify their target with 100 percent certainty, a violation of hunting safety procedures that is now, thankfully, against the law.

That law was put into effect after Wood’s death. It has made it easier to hold hunters accountable, and it has made hunting more safe.

There are roughly 220,000 hunters licensed in Maine, and each deer hunting season they collectively harvest somewhere around 30,000 deer.

According to the Portland Press Herald, when the targeting law was passed in 1993, there had been 187 hunting incidents in the previous 10 years, involving both hunters and non-hunters, including 16 fatal incidents.

In the 26 years since the law was put in place, there have been 100 incidents, including six fatalities. The deaths of Ripley and Wrentzel were the only non-hunter fatalities.

The targeting law built on earlier improvements such as the requirements to take a hunter’s safety course and to wear blaze orange, as well as the ban on deer driving.

A focus on hunter safety has made the woods safer for everyone, and rather than changing the laws governing access to private land, that’s where the focus should remain.


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