Search and Rescue. Just the term itself rings with urgency.

Finding lost persons in the woods of Maine is one of the key missions of the Maine Warden Service.

Often overlooked, or taken for granted by the average citizen, search and rescue operations run the gamut, from locating a lost hunter or an overdue snowmobiler to diving under an ice-covered lake for a drowning victim or finding a missing dementia patient who, walked away from a care facility.

When it comes to finding lost persons, the Maine Warden Service has no equal. It is very experienced and very proficient at search and rescue. When a person is missing, especially in the fall or winter, time is of the essence. Hypothermia is a killer and so, with a life at stake, Wardens are under a great deal of pressure: they must work fast, organize well, and cover a lot of ground efficiently and thoroughly.

As it turned out, the extensive, prolonged search for missing AT hiker Geraldine Largay two years ago was the most costly and most high-visibility search in Maine Warden Service history. Largay reportedly perished from exposure after becoming lost off the Appalachian Trail. She was found by a forester long after the official search had been suspended.

What did that undertaking cost?

According to Warden Service spokesman John MacDonald, the dollar figure has yet to be tabulated, but it will be a significant number. He estimates that during a nominal “search-and-rescue year,” the state spends in excess of $250,000 on search and rescue missions.

Interestingly, the costs for search and rescue operations are paid for by the state General Fund, not by hunting and fishing license fees from the budget of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Although it’s not common knowledge, there is a provision within the law that gives the Fish and Wildlife commissioner the authority to charge an individual or an organization for part or all of the costs of a search and rescue operation. This option is rarely invoked. Over the years, there have been a couple of billings for search and rescue costs, but the money was never forthcoming.

“Under what circumstances would the commissioner’s option be justified?” I asked MacDonald.

“The most clear-cut occasion would be if a search were conducted after someone knowingly provided false information about a lost person, a hoax,” MacDonald explained.

In some states, Alaska for example, the state collects an advance fee from all licensed hunters that is placed in escrow for a search and rescue fund.

There have been some lost-persons cases in Maine, involving hunters and snowmobilers that were the result of addle-brained behavior or personal negligence. In one case, a night-search was conducted for an overdue snowmobiler who, it was discovered, got lost not on the trail, but in the arms of another woman.

He was not charged for the search.

MacDonald said that the billing option is used sparingly for this reason:When people are missing and their lives are at stake, the Maine Warden Service does not want people to NOT put that call in for fear of being billed for services.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors.” His e-mail address is [email protected] He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.”


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