A Waldo County farmer was understandably outraged when, as he put it, “four truckloads of yahoos” with guns and dogs pulled into his driveway and claimed the right to be on his property.
What to do about it? As usual, the answer has been that there ought to be a law. So the Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee has scheduled a public work session on two bills that would require written permission for a hunter to hunt coyotes, bears or bobcats with dogs. The session is set for 1 p.m. Monday in Room 206 of the Cross Office building.
Abuses are by only a small minority of hunters, trappers, fishermen and other land users. A landowner already can refuse access. The new legislation would merely require any permission to be put in writing.
That sounds simple enough, but critics rightly point out that written permission puts a burden on the hunter to track down the owner of a particular tract and make the request. And some landowners welcome hunters — for example to get rid of pesky wild turkeys. New legislation would put them to the trouble of finding where to give the required written permission. Any disputes would put a new burden on the Warden Service, already stretched thin by other duties. Landowners already can post their property against all trespassing or against specific intrusions, using signs or painted stripes on trees, rocks or fence posts.
Maine’s Recreational Access and Landowner Relations Program already outlines how landowners and others who want to use the land can work together for the general good.
The Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and other outdoor organizations naturally oppose any new restrictions but urge good relations with landowners. Advocates of new legislation have differed over details, for example whether the $500 maximum fine is enough.
A broader look at the matter comes from the Sportsman’s Alliance’s executive director, Matt Dunlap. He cites Maine’s unique history of public access to private land. It goes back to 1629 Massachusetts Bay Charter promulgated by King Charles II of England and colonial laws of 1641, which allowed people to pass over private property to reach a pond greater than 10 acres but only for purposes of “fishing and fowling.” The same laws extended shore-front private property rights down to the low water mark, except that access had to be granted to the intertidal zone for “fishing, fowling and navigation.”
The rules stayed with Maine when it separated from Massachusetts in 1820. Maine court cases have modified the Great Ponds Doctrine, giving the public the right to “fish and fowl and cut ice upon them.” This limits the right of a landowner to refuse access if the land includes a big pond.
In the light of Maine’s special heritage and the complications of these ancient laws, the committee will do well to look for a way to protect landowners without adding unenforceable restrictions.