When there is a tragedy, it is human nature to ask what could have been done to prevent it. The 2017 death of Karen Wrentzel, who was shot by a hunter on her own property, is one of these situations.
Robert Trundy shot and killed Wrentzel, who was 34, on the morning of Oct. 28, 2017, while she was digging for gemstones on her land in Hebron. In interviews with Maine game wardens after the shooting, Trundy admitted that he did not properly identify his target when he pulled the trigger, as required by law, according to court documents.
He also acknowledged that he did not go to help Wrentzel, even after he heard her scream. Failing to render aid in such a situation is a felony.
On Tuesday, Trundy, who was facing a jury trial in Oxford County, pled guilty to manslaughter and accepted a plea deal. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but will likely serve only nine months. The felony charge of failing to provide aid to Wrentzel was dismissed.
Wrentzel’s family and others were understandably critical of the short sentence.
Wrentzel’s death prompted many, including the judge who oversaw Trundy’s sentencing and Bangor Daily News outdoor columnist John Holyoke, to ask if Maine’s permissive law regarding access to private land for hunting should be reconsidered.
Speaking to the people gathered in his courtroom in South Paris on Tuesday, Superior Court Justice Andrew Horton emphasized that Wrentzel was on her own property and “did nothing wrong.”
So, the judge wondered, “Perhaps the law should require a hunter to get permission of a landowner before going onto a property.”
It is an appropriate question. In fact, in the face of changing land use patterns and weaponry, along with growing concerns about misuse of private land — especially trash dumping — it makes sense to periodically reconsider Maine’s access laws.
Just as the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife periodically re-evaluates its plans for managing Maine’s game species, land use should also be reviewed.
The last time Maine had a comprehensive review of hunting on private land was in 1990, two years after Karen Wood was shot and killed by a hunter outside her Hermon home. The Commission to Study Trespass Laws recommended some changes to make it easier for landowners to post their land.
But the state law that allows hunters an implied right to access land as long as the land has not been posted with “no trespassing” or “access by permission only” signs remains. Maine’s law is especially permissive.
As IF&W notes, “This access is an incredible gift, and in order to preserve it, everyone who ventures outdoors needs to understand the contribution that landowners make … it’s important to remember that the private land you use for recreation belongs to someone else … and accessing it is a privilege, not a right.” The department suggests that hunters always ask landowners for permission to hunt on their land, a common-sense recommendation that many hunters and trappers follow.
Not all do. Trundy did not. In fact, Wrentzel’s uncle Jon Spofford said that in 25 years, no one has asked for permission to hunt on the 45 acres that he and other family members own. The land is now posted to require written landowner permission for hunting.
We understand concerns that requiring landowner permission could be cumbersome and difficult to enforce. And, we value Maine’s long standing open access to the outdoors. But, those who oppose discussing any changes should remember that the easiest solution to abuse of access to private land is to post the land as off limits. That would be a terrible outcome.