Two deeply held Maine values collided on Nov. 15, 1988, when Karen Wood was shot dead by a hunter in her Hermon backyard. Mainers cherish hunting as recreation. It’s a tradition that connects us with our past, when deer, moose and other animals filled the larder for winter. Mainers also cherish the sanctuary of their land and their homesteads, and expect a certain degree of privacy and safety while there.
The bullet that killed Wood shattered what had been, for the most part, the peaceful coexistence of landowner and hunter rights.
But first and foremost, the young mother’s death was a tragedy of monumental proportions. And after all the investigation, analysis, theory and speculation, her death was more than likely the result of a confluence of unfortunate circumstances than the consequences of reckless behavior or flawed intentions.
The death was a watershed event in Maine history. After the shooting, people argued passionately about the case. Was it the fault of hunting as a sport? Was it the victim’s fault for not wearing blaze orange? How you answered those questions centered on how long you lived in the state as much as on ideological differences.
In 1988, the state was in the midst of a real estate development boom, as people from southern New England and the mid-Atlantic states bought land that was far cheaper than what was available at home and built houses on old woodlots and dormant pastures. The Karen Wood case was a flash point in the friction between the new Maine and the old Maine.
Many of the conflicts the death highlighted have eased in the last 20 years. And some good came from the tragedy. The concept of thinking about where the bullet would travel if it missed the target is now ingrained in the minds of hunters and in state law. Statistics show hunting is safer now. Eight hunting seasons of the last 20 saw no fatalities. In both 1950 and 1952, 19 hunters were killed. The attitude from the public toward hunters was, according to Paul Jacques, deputy commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, “As long as you guys were killing each other, we didn’t care.” Karen Wood’s story made the nonhunting public care.
Hunting is not what it once was in Maine. Hunting is no longer a rural universal rite of passage. And long gone are the days when deer hunting was about providing a family’s meat for the winter. Today, hunting is mainly recreation, like snowmobiling and kayaking. Its participants, many of them from out-of-state, are spending disposable income and adding revenue to the state economy.
Hunting deaths must be dispassionately reviewed with an eye to avoiding similar tragedies in the future. Hunting is part of what makes life in Maine rich, and it is also part of the menu we offer to our visitors. Maine is big enough to contain both the joy of bagging a big buck and the peace and safety of nonhunters.