Years ago, when I heard that Gov. John Baldacci appointed nonprofessionals to head up the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and the Department of Conservation, I thought he might be on to something. For years, these departments had failed to provide an adequate level of protection for Maine’s invaluable natural resources. They also put all their eggs in one basket — the so-called consumptive user.
By hiring administrators and politicians rather than environmental professionals, I thought we might get some much-needed checks and balances. This could help ensure that all sides were fairly represented and the long-term viability of our natural resources was put ahead of the short-term desires of those who would exploit them.
I now realize how wrong I was. In fact, when the governor and Legislature ignored a statute requiring the deputy commissioner of DIF&W be either formally trained or experienced in fish and wildlife biology or law enforcement, the red flags should have gone up — proof once again that most laws are there for a reason.
In the last eight years, Maine has witnessed the collapse of its deer herd. We have seen an expansion of the Atlantic salmon endangered species listing, a near listing of lynx and laid the groundwork for a future listing of arctic char. Our woods are being carved up, cut and sold off. We have been bombed with negative press regarding our handling of bear, coyotes, lynx, brook trout, char, alewives and live bait.
We have lived through lobstergate, moosegate and other embarrassing incidents involving high-ranking DIF&W and conservation personnel. According to one article, morale in the warden service hit an all-time low. Several key employees jumped ship. Others opted for early retirement. Sporting license sales have declined — especially to nonresidents.
Attempts to protect our never overstocked brook trout fell well short of what was needed. Efforts to protect our rare arctic char have been stalled for several years because DIF&W refuses to produce a rational list of waters. Our self-sustaining brook trout have not fared much better — the list of waters where they would be protected from dangerous live bait and stocking has been stalled for nearly four years.
Maine is under arguably the worst invasive gamefish, baitfish and plant epidemic in the nation. One event gained national attention when invasive smelts extirpated a rare population of Artic char in Big Reed Pond. Since then, char water Wadleigh Pond has succumbed to the same fish. Moosehead has bass, Sebego has pike, Rapid River has bass, St. John River has muskies and Belgrade Lakes have become the poster child for invasives with multiple non-native gamefish, minnows and plants.
Our last three state record fish came from a hatchery. One was of highly suspicious origin and may have been accidentally stocked mere weeks before it was harvested. Two of Maine’s hatchery fish — Maine strain brook trout and New Gloucester brown trout — have been so severely inbred by DIF&W they barely are worth stocking.
According to one poll,Mainers now target more non-native smallmouth bass than native brook trout. Many of the who’s who of the Maine outdoor scene now leave the state to fish and-or hunt. Canada, New York, the Rocky Mountains and even neighboring New Hampshire all benefit from Maine sportsmen money.
Economically important fisheries such as the Kennebec, Androscoggin, West Branch, Moosehead, Chesuncook, etc. have fallen off sharply. While the few true quality fisheries left in the state are being loved to death, hundreds of miles of river and stream, and thousands of acres of lakes and ponds go all but unused due to the poor fishing.
As I see it, the last eight years have not been good for Maine’s natural resources. These resources are a significant part of Maine’s quality of place and a major component of its rural economic engine. Failure to reverse the current downward trend will doom interior Maine to a future of poverty and mediocrity.
Only a trained, experienced and enlightened management team can return Maine to its former glory as a nationally known outdoor recreation destination. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. Not only do we also need trained professionals, we need people with vision and an understanding of how to make Maine’s natu-ral resources work for all users — not just the consumptive ones.
Bob Mallard is the owner of Kennebec River Outfitters in Madison.