It’s often helpful to take a look back, before moving forward. In April of 1998, Roberta Scruggs, at that time the outdoor writer for the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram, wrote this story, titled Law Clarified, and Hunters Ride in Peace.
It wasn’t his 30 years as a Maine master guide that earned Greig “Butch” Barker of Medway his spot in Maine hunting history. And he certainly didn’t seek or enjoy his moment of fame.
“I am very bitter,” Barker said last week. “And you can quote me on that.”
But Barker and nine others – I think of them as the Aroostook 10 – did Maine hunters a real service. Because of them, an important law was recently clarified. It’s now safe for hunters to ride the roads again – as long as their weapons are unloaded.
“It’s illegal to have a loaded firearm in a vehicle. Period,” said Senator Marge Kilkelly, D-Wiscasset.
That clarification was necessary because, during last October’s moose hunt, the Maine Warden Service cited the 10 for hunting from a motor vehicle, even though their guns weren’t loaded. And that infuriated hunters.
“I never had so much correspondence on an issue,” said George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “It was, I think, a defining moment for sportsmen, in their coming to recognize that the warden service had serious problems.”
Hunting “from or with” a motor vehicle has long been prohibited, but warden officials insisted that now standing or sitting in the back of a pickup with a gun “at the ready” was hunting – even if the ammunition was in the hunter’s pocket. They called it “the most blatant form of illegal road hunting.”
Lt. Mike Marshall, who runs the Aroostook division, said then that the hunters’ behavior reminded him of news footage “of bands of people hanging off trucks, roaming the streets of Somalia with guns hanging off them.”
“I think that really gives hunters a bad name,” Marshall said, underlining the last half-dozen words by pausing between each one.
Well, Barker and the others didn’t think they’d broken the law and certainly saw no resemblance between moose hunters – riding the roads in a traditional way – and the warring factions in Somalia. Barker had been sitting on a bar stool with his unloaded gun hung on a canoe rack.
Craig Turner of Scarboro, cited while sitting on his cooler, wondered why he was not warned by the hunting law book or the hunter safety class he’d just completed to keep his gun and ammo in separate parts of the truck. And both current and former legislators said wardens had gone far beyond the language and intent of the law.
So two days after the story broke, the warden service acknowledged the “intensity of the public outcry” and withdrew the citations, saying they’d be reduced to written warnings. But last week Commissioner Lee Perry said he planned to send each of the 10 a letter, assuring them there would be no blot on their records.
Still, wardens continued to insist the practice was illegal. And in March they presented their own clarification of the law to the Legislature’s fish and wildlife committee. That would have made it illegal to be in an area supporting game, outside the passenger compartment, with an unloaded firearm, using any platform “to enhance their hunting ability.” So, for example, hunters couldn’t stand on a crate with an unloaded gun.
The committee didn’t buy it, and Kilkelly just told wardens “that’s not the direction we want to go in.”
Smith, who had made the issue a top priority for the Sportsman’s Alliance, was “ecstatic – happy doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
So all’s well that ends well – though Barker isn’t finding it easy to forget.
“It still hangs on my mind. It still bothers me a great deal,” he said.
“I’m going to be paranoid up that area. I’m going to look over my shoulder.”