Maine has more than 40 assorted wildlife preserves or sanctuaries. With a few exceptions, most of them are off limits to hunting and trapping. As a matter of fact, Baxter State Park, which is a wildlife sanctuary under Maine law, is one of the exceptions. Although it is not commonly known, there are areas in the north end of the park that are open to public hunting.
In some ways, these wildlife sanctuaries are a throwback to the early 1900s when we did not have the sophisticated wildlife management systems we enjoy today. The sanctuary was a method to “save some seed” when our deer populations were at the mercy of unregulated hunting and unmanaged deer populations. Still, the sanctuaries remain, an antiquated remnant of the past and no doubt a concept that pleases those in our midst who oppose hunting of any wild animals, or, while not opposed to hunting, simply like the idea that there are wildlife sanctuaries, where the hunter or the trapper cannot tread.
In particular, the Orrington Game Sanctuary — sometimes called the King’s Mountain game preserve — is a confusing, unresolved controversy that has simmered beneath the radar for a half-century or more.
If you will excuse the pun, this game sanctuary is neither fish nor fowl. For starters, this sanctuary is almost without any solid, marked boundaries. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife does not know just how much actual acreage comprises this game sanctuary. I have explored parts of it with Warden Sgt. Alan Gillis and it is a big parcel! One known boundary is the south side of the Richardson Road and part of an old rock wall that extends along the county line off that road. Center Drive, which leads up to the broadcast towers on the mountain, transects the sanctuary.
One Center Drive resident, Phil Eckert, who loves the sanctuary and is kind of a self-appointed “warden” who puts up a lot of sanctuary and “no trespassing” signs, claims that there are 2,000 acres in this sanctuary parcel.
Going as far back as the days of Game Warden Dave Mercier, no wardens have been comfortable enforcing the sanctuary hunting prohibition because of the indeterminate boundary lines. Warden Sgt. Gillis spent nine days back in 1997 without much success trying to pinpoint some of the old boundary markers. Efforts back in 2002 by Lee Perry, then Maine’s fish and wildlife commissioner, to solve the problem by removing the sanctuary altogether were put on the back burner when a few sanctuary residents became vocal.
In 2008, Warden Gillis submitted a report and recommendation to his bosses in Augusta. He determined that the sanctuary residents were divided about whether or not to remove the sanctuary status. He argued compellingly that, unless the department was ready to pay for a major survey of this land, the only practical solution was to remove the sanctuary designation. After all, he pointed out, the landowners who presently owned land on the sanctuary always had the option to post the land against hunting if they saw fit.
That same year, at the department’s recommendation, Bucksport legislator Kimberley Rosen sponsored “An Act to Remove Game Sanctuary Status for certain lands in the Town of Orrington.” The bill passed. During legislative testimony, IF&W spokesman Mark Stadler, who was director of the Wildlife Division, said, “It is the department’s position that game sanctuaries are antiquated and unnecessary, because game populations are adequately protected under Maine’s science-based game management programs and associated law enforcement.”
Sanctuary resident Phil Eckert and some of his sanctuary neighbors objected and petitioned Rep. Rosen. She caved, asserting that she was misled by the department. Before the ink was dry on her first bill, she introduced “An Act to Restore Game Sanctuary Status for certain lands in the Town of Orrington.” It passed.
Eckert, an amiable, soft-spoken Korean War vet, seems to believe the deer that populate the sanctuary are his personal deer, and his responsibility to protect. He will fight and petition again if need be. “I don’t care about those other boundaries, or whether they exist or not,” he told me. “That’s not my problem.”
So what’s the answer? Removing the sanctuary makes sense. It would solve a legal issue, and create a wonderful new hunting opportunity in an area with a high incidence of posted land. Landowners like Eckert and author Stephen King, who owns 15 acres on the top of the mountain, can still keep hunters out by exercising their posting option.
The roadblock to common sense, as so often is the case, is purely political. Rosen, who now is a state Senate candidate, said, “I’m willing to revisit the issue.” Perhaps she should, but she will need the support of the Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, his landowner relations coordinator and local and state sporting organizations. Unless sportsmen and organizations such as the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM) bring this issue back to the front burner, little is likely to change.