AUGUSTA — When it comes to wildlife legislation and management, two camps have historically been at odds in Maine: those who hunt and those who do not, preferring to hike, birdwatch and kayak.

Judy Camuso, the state’s new commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, intends to change that and says her unusual background makes her uniquely qualified to do so. Unlike the 12 men who preceded her over the past 100 years, she doesn’t come at the job solely from the vantage of hunting or fishing.

Though Camuso has worked at the department since 2007 – with its traditional constituency of hunters and fishermen – she also spent over a decade as staff naturalist at Maine Audubon. She remains an avid birder. And she doesn’t hunt, though she said she’d like to learn to hunt deer.

“There is a gap between the (hunters) and the non-consumptive users, and I don’t think the gap is as wide as people think,” said Camuso, 48. “Everyone really wants the same thing. We all want healthy fish and wildlife populations. We want a clean environment and we want good habitat. I think our commonalities will bring us together.”

During testimony at her confirmation hearing earlier this year and in interviews for this story, several leaders in Maine’s disparate outdoors community – including groups like The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon, Trout Unlimited and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine – praised Camuso as having the ability to unify the two sides.

“Her passion for promoting wildlife policy that protects the resource and secondly, strikes a balance between viewers and (hunters), is what separates her from all other potential candidates,” Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine spokeswoman Becky Morrell testified at the hearing.

Camuso was unanimously confirmed on Jan. 31.

THE PATH TO THE TOP

Camuso said she honed her collaborative approach as the youngest of six kids, four of them boys. As a child, if she didn’t speak up, she didn’t get heard. More than that, she learned that her older siblings’ opinions, formed through their own experiences, were worth hearing.

Her interest in the natural world began at an early age. “I’ve always been fascinated by animals and wildlife,” Camuso said. She grew up outside of Boston, frequenting the Stone Zoo in Stoneham, where she was enchanted by the animals, and summered at her family’s beach home on the South Shore of Massachusetts. She spent – and still spends – countless hours at the beach there, paddling and birding. Camuso also credits her mother for her early love of the outdoors. Her father died when she was 4, leaving her mother to raise the children largely on her own. “She always encouraged us to go outside.”

Camuso enrolled at the University of Vermont, intending to be a veterinarian, but after doing field work with birds as an intern at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge in Chatham, Massachusetts, she said, “that was it.” She switched her major to wildlife biology – and her love of birding took flight.

Four years after graduation, Camuso took the job at Audubon. As outdoor educator, staff naturalist and the director of the organization’s center at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth, she strove to get Mainers excited about protecting wildlife.

“My personal (goal) has always been to connect people with the outdoors with the belief that if they care about it, people will protect what they care about, and fight and advocate for it,” she said.

After 11 years she left the nonprofit for a state job as an assistant state regional biologist. She rose quickly through the ranks at Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, and in 2013 was named the state’s first female wildlife division director.

Early on she faced a fierce debate that in many ways encapsulated the divide between hunters and non-hunters. The 2014 bear hunting referendum, the state’s second, sought to end three controversial methods used to hunt bear in Maine – bear baiting, hunting with dogs and the use of traps.

When she was named wildlife division director, some of the state regional wildlife biologists had questioned her experience, but Camuso believes during the bear referendum she proved her commitment to maintaining hunting practices, including those used to manage the state’s 35,000 black bears. Camuso gave countless talks defending the department’s position at rotary clubs and libraries, on television and YouTube videos. She also vehemently defended the department’s right to take a position on a citizen’s initiative. The referendum debate grew so heated, IFW reported that Camuso received threats and was assigned a game warden to ensure her safety. In the end, Mainers narrowly defeated the referendum.

“I think the referendum showed that I’m pretty committed to our staff,” Camuso said. “I earned some respect and trust there. I showed I have their back.”

And despite the intensity of that debate, she’s managed to also hold on to support from the naturalist community.

Andy Cutko, the science director of The Nature Conservancy in Maine, backed her at the confirmation hearing: “I’ve worked with countless foresters, conservationists, wildlife biologists and naturalists in every county in Maine, and I can tell you that Judy has broad and strong support from Maine’s natural resource professionals,” he said.

FACING FINANCIAL FACTS

As commissioner, Camuso supervises 310 employees – including game wardens, and fish and wildlife biologists – and a $50 million budget. (Her own salary is $139,000, according to Scott Ogden, communications director for Gov. Janet Mills.) The department manages the state’s game fish and wild animals as well as its endangered and threatened species; it oversees wilderness search and rescues; and it polices the state’s 14,000 miles of snowmobile trails, and some 3,000 lakes and ponds.

Camuso’s hope to unite Mainers who hunt and wildlife watchers who do not is not merely about peace and reconciliation. It’s also about money.

For decades the number of licensed hunters in Maine has declined, dropping 21 percent over 15 years through 2017, the last year for which the state has numbers. Because license fees from hunters and fishermen pay for much of the work of the department, a decline means an ever-shrinking budget.

Camuso not only wants to expand the number of hunters but also believes she can put the department on sounder financial footing by enlisting support from non-hunters. If Maine’s non-hunting constituency better understood the department’s work managing and protecting wildlife, she believes they would lobby to have it better funded. It’s why as wildlife division director she worked to improve the department’s communication with the public – overhauling its website, and improving its presence on Facebook and Instagram. Communication with outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes remains a key goal.

She hopes to do that in part by having the IFW host round-table meetings with various outdoor groups to work toward common goals.

“I usually don’t come to the table with the answers,” she said. “I come to the table to listen to what people want to say and to hear different perspectives.”

One group she can expect to hear from? Maine’s chapter of the Humane Society of the United States, which often clashes with hunting groups. Katie Hansberry, the Maine state director, declined to comment on Camuso’s qualifications to lead IFW. Hansberry said the Humane Society was “looking forward to working with Commissioner Camuso and IFW… to open up our state’s wildlife management policymaking process to a more broad representation of stakeholders.”

‘I DO MISS THE OWLS’

Camuso, who is single and has no children, has lived on 10 wooded acres in Freeport for 22 years, a wild area she loves and knows well. A federally licensed bird bander, for two decades she trapped, banded, gathered data and released saw-whet owls on her property, regularly inviting scout troops, birding clubs and other members of the public into her home to teach them about the birds. She stopped banding in 2016 to focus on her job as the state’s wildlife division director. “I do miss the owls,” she admitted.

Step into the office she now occupies as commissioner and that’s apparent. Beside a map of Maine’s seven wildlife management districts is a bookshelf filled with natural objects: a stacked column of rocks from her family’s beach house, a carved wooden shore bird, some deer antlers. Owls – with two photographs, two statues and an owl book end – predominate.

“I’ve always needed to spend time outdoors. It’s my church, if you will,” Camuso said. “It’s always been who I am – an outdoor person.”