February 28, 2020
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4 men face federal trespassing charges for camping, building fire on island wildlife refuge

Heather Steeves | BDN
Heather Steeves | BDN
A house on Metinic Island in 2012. Four men are scheduled to appear in federal court on Jan. 10. They face federal trespassing charges for camping and building fires during nesting season of a protected National Wildlife Refuge on the island.

Four men — two from Maine and two from Massachusetts — are facing federal trespassing charges after camping on part of a Knox County island designated as a wildlife preserve.

Thomas Wengler, Peter Johnson, Benjamin “Tucker” Thompson and Clayton Witham entered Metinic Island, part of the plantation of Matinicus Isle, in August 2018, according to court documents. That part of the island is closed to the public from April through August. The defendants allegedly camped overnight in the refuge with their families, pitching tents, mowing grass and building a fire.

Each of the defendants besides Witham received violation notices in August 2012 for similar charges of unauthorized presence on refuge land. Witham, a resident of Owls Head and a lobsterman in the area, owns land abutting the refuge, according to court documents.

Thompson lives in Freeport. Wengler is a resident of South Dennis and Johnson of Littleton, both towns in Massachusetts. All of the men are between 58 and 60 years old.

Courtesy of Maine Land Use Planning Commission
Courtesy of Maine Land Use Planning Commission
A sign on the northern part of Metinic Island designates the federally protected wildlife refuge.

Metinic Island is located about 7 miles by St. George, a mainland Knox County town. The island is the nesting area to several hundred pairs of nesting seabirds — including eiders, common and Arctic terns, black guillemots, and Leach’s storm-petrels — according to Friends of the Maine Coastal Islands, a nonprofit conservation group. Metinic Island is also home to a substantial population of privately owned grazing sheep.

The island has been caught between public and private ownership for decades. It was owned by two families until 1985, according to the Maine Land Use Planning Commission, before a court ordered the division of the northern half of the island into eight parcels held by nine individuals.

Two of those parcels were granted to members of Witham’s family. One of those was granted to Eugene and Nathalie Witham, who constructed a seasonal residence on their lot. The southern part of the island is still owned by one of the original two families.

The state developed a resource plan for the Metinic Island in 1992 designed to protect seabirds and nesting habitats. That same year, the federal government began acquiring parcels on the island and incorporating them into the larger Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 8,200 acres on 61 islands and other coastal parcels.

The defendants face Class B federal misdemeanor charges with maximum penalties of up to 180 days in prison and fines not exceeding $5,000.

 


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