Lana Pelletier of Allagash still remembers the day about 20 years ago when she was driving with a visitor to the tiny St. John Valley town — and they met up with a herd of bison in the road.
“I was in the middle of telling her not to believe all the weird stories she’d heard about Allagash when we met the herd [of bison] running in the opposite lane toward us,” Pelletier recalled. “My cousin was driving the pickup truck following them and my brother was on the [truck’s] hood. ‘Never mind,’ I told her, ‘It’s weird.’”
A bison roundup in the middle of the north Maine woods is an extremely rare occurrence, but in an agricultural state like Maine that is more rural than urban, vehicle-livestock encounters are going to happen.
In the case of the Allagash bison, the large animals belonged to Pelletier’s grandfather and had escaped from their enclosed pasture.
When it comes to livestock, animal escape artists come with the territory, according to Matthew Randall, agriculture compliance supervisor with The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
And sooner or later, they are going to find their way onto a Maine road.
Neither Randall’s department nor the Maine Department of Transportation keeps statistics on vehicle-livestock collisions, specifically, but according to the MDOT’s online crash query tool, in 2016 there were 158 crashes involving “all other animals.”
In the cases of wildlife, those numbers are far greater with drivers statewide involved in accidents with 4,542 deer, 296 moose, 43 wild turkeys and 33 bears in 2016.
Livestock sightings while driving, however, appear far more common.
“I was driving through Cornish once and saw a pair of young steer with their yoke on wandering down the side of the road,” said Melissa Brandt. “One would yank the other in one direction to reach a mouthful of grass and then the other would spot a leaf it wanted to munch on.”
Randall said there are two factors he believes account for those sightings not turning into collisions.
“When they spot the [livestock] most people apply two things,” he said. “Common sense and their brakes, [and] we are thankful we don’t have a bigger problem and that these kinds of accidents are quite isolated, though they can cause a good fright.”
When it comes to livestock, which can represent a considerable financial investment, Randall said having the animals get out is a farmer’s worst nightmare.
“A livestock owner’s probably greatest concern is that these kinds of encounters can happen,” he said. “When you own livestock, there is always a risk of them getting out where they can pose a danger to themselves and others.”
Nine times out of 10, when livestock make a break for it and go on the lam, it’s nothing the owners have done wrong.
“You can have situations arise like all those trees that came down a few weeks ago during the big storms that pose a threat to fences,” Randall said. “You also have cases like up in Aroostook County where the moose love to play with fences and won’t stop until they push through them.”
But, every so often human error is the culprit, he said.
“Sometimes we are all guilty of rushing around and forgetting to close a [pasture] gate,” Randall said.
Other times, it’s pure malice.
“I’ve seen scenarios of people letting animals out thinking it’s a funny prank,” Randall said. “That’s a very dangerous business [because] that individual may be endangering the animal’s welfare and other people.”
Because livestock is considered private property, if a wandering cow, pig, sheep, goat or other farm critter does cause a vehicle accident, Randall said the animal’s owner could be held liable.
Maine has an “animal trespass” law which Randall said does hold owners accountable, and they can face fines of up to $2,500 depending how often an animal escapes over a set period of time.
“The only animal that gets a free pass under this law are cats,” he said.
But most of the time, Randall said, when people see livestock outside a fenced area and wandering the roads, they just want to help and not see the farmer get into trouble.
Like Karen Otstot of Fort Kent and the herd of goats she always referred to as the “Holy Goats,” because their enclosure was plastered with religious signage.
“One day on my way to work in Eagle Lake I came upon a bunch of the goats roaming free [and] scattered in the road,” Otstot said. “I stopped, informed the goats’ owner and helped herd the goats back toward their Jesus-themed pen before I had to be on my way to work.”
In other words, just another day on Maine’s rural roads.
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