ALLAGASH — When he assumed leadership of the Maine Warden Service in 2008 after his predecessor was caught violating commercial fishing laws, Col. Joel Wilkinson inherited an organization suffering from poor morale, increasing demands, reduced budgets and a history of problems.

By most accounts, he has helped turn the organization around, reducing public complaints about day-to-day interactions and improving its public reputation via the popular Animal Planet television series “North Woods Law.”

An undercover investigation and spectacular 2014 raid in this remote northern Maine community – and the response of Wilkinson’s office to public scrutiny – has shown that some longstanding problems remain. Allagash residents accuse wardens of padding evidence, seeking retribution on individuals they were unable to show had broken laws, and enticing people to engage in crimes they would not otherwise have committed.

But representatives of groups that regularly interact with game wardens – guides, snowmobilers and sportsmen – say there has been a marked turnaround in day-to-day interactions under Wilkinson, with far fewer complaints from their members. Wilkinson declined to be interviewed for this story, but he had put respect for the “customer” at the top of his reform agenda.

“I’ve seen a drastic decline in the number of complaints from my members, and that’s attributed to leadership,” says David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine, who was a state legislator on the committee that oversaw the wardens in the 2000s. “They were seen as running roughshod over sportsmen and needed reform. Wilkinson has really stabilized and brought more professionalism to the department.”

The warden service, which is the law enforcement branch of the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, has 125 officers scattered across the state. Their primary focus is enforcing fish and wildlife laws, but wardens are often the only law enforcement presence in the remote towns and vast unorganized territories where they operate, performing search-and-rescue operations, acting as traffic cops on snowmobile and ATV trails, and investigating hunting-related shootings.

In a typical year, the service conducts 134,000 inspections for hunting, fishing or vehicle licenses and responds to 22,000 calls for service, including several hundred search-and-rescue requests. They submit an average of 1,760 charges for prosecution annually, the vast majority for hunting offenses or vehicle registration and license infractions. Details to apprehend people committing wildlife crimes are a small proportion of the workload, with just 55 such operations conducted in 2013, including the setting up of checkpoints or decoys.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the wardens were under fire from sportsmen, legislators and the general public. Roberta Scruggs, who reported intensively on the agency for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, wrote at the time about complaints “that wardens are rude, arrogant, inflexible, overzealous and unable to admit mistakes,” and that they were engaged “in vehicle stops that citizens contended were unlawful.”

Morale was low, especially after a 1997 incident in which a warden supervisor urinated on recruits twice during training exercises. An internal review declared the incidents to be accidental and nobody was disciplined.

Outside management reviews of the service in 1997, 2004 and 2007 emphasized an internal identity crisis. The last of those reports – never released to the public in its entirety – revealed that the “majority of employees said morale and team spirit were down,” that “several cliques” existed and that people thought they “may be treated differently based on their inclusion in the cliques.” Shortly after taking office, Wilkinson was tasked with correcting the situation.

Bob Meyers, executive director of the Maine Snowmobile Association, says wardens play a key role in enforcing safety laws along the 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails, so they draw the ire of rulebreakers.

“It can be controversial if you get a ticket, but we’re enthusiastic supporters of their efforts because it has a demonstrated effect on bad behavior,” he said. “When we have specific issues, they’re generally very good about responding.”

Don Kleiner, head of the Maine Guides Association and a former communications official at the fisheries and wildlife department, agreed.

“Compared to the way things were in the old days, we’re not even close,” Kleiner said.