Wildlife defender Jeff Corwin sued in hunting ground dispute
Jeff Corwin is one of America’s most popular wildlife advocates and conservationists, featured on television embracing threatened species such as an orphaned spider monkey in Belize and a rescued Atlantic puffin in Iceland.
Yet in Norwell, where he grew up and still hunts to this day, Corwin — who has spoken to the United Nations on rainforest preservation — is accused of trespassing on an elderly couple’s property, chopping down woods to create a hunting ground, and hunting deer illegally.
Robert Blake, an 83-year-old veteran of the Korean War, and his wife, Florine, allege in a lawsuit filed Thursday in Plymouth Superior Court that Corwin admitted to them in 2015 that he cleared their woods that summer and erected a tree stand and deer feeder on their property.
The Blakes say Corwin has refused to pay for the damage, which they estimate at more than $46,000. The couple asked the court to order Corwin to pay triple that amount, as the law permits for those found liable for trespassing to destroy trees.
Corwin, 50, lives in Marshfield, has a Massachusetts hunting license, and still hunts in Norwell with the permission of landowners he has befriended over the years. The episode with the Blakes, he said in an interview, stems from an innocent mistake: he wandered off a neighboring property where he had been granted permission to hunt and mistakenly cleared trees in the wrong location.
A bowhunter, Corwin said he cleared a shooting path, installed a deer stand, feeder, and trail camera there, but positioned them to monitor the movement of deer before the hunting season, not to illegally bait the animals. He tacked light reflectors to trees so he could find the site in the dark, he said, not to produce light that might cause deer to freeze during hunting season, which also would be illegal.
Corwin has not been charged with any crimes or cited for any hunting violations. And he said he never intentionally hunted on the Blake property and has never illegally hunted anywhere.
“Environmental stewardship is very, very important to me,’’ Corwin said. “I have a great legacy of outdoorsmanship and conservation. I take great pride in that, and this to me is a very bitter pill.’’
The allegations contrast with the image Corwin has developed over many years in the public eye. In 2002, when he was recognized as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” he was hosting “The Jeff Corwin Experience’’ on the Animal Planet network. He has established an environmental center, the EcoZone Museum, at the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell — just 2 miles from the damaged woods.
Corwin said he has hunted and fished throughout Norwell since he was a child and developed friendships with many landowners who have welcomed him on their properties, sharing venison and turkey he has harvested, sometimes as sausages and meat loafs at Christmas.
“This is the first time I have ever had a problem, and it’s remarkable the way I’m being pursued like this because I made a mistake,’’ Corwin said.
The Blakes said their son, Robert Blake Jr., discovered the damaged woods on Dec. 15, 2015. The area is about 50 yards from their home, across a small bridge, and was thick with brush, shrubs, and trees before Corwin allegedly cleared the space, cutting down 12 white pines and seven red maples in the process.
The lawsuit states the elder Blake was “severely shocked by the destruction.’’ He reported the incident to Norwell police, who summoned the Massachusetts Environmental Police. When an environmental officer inspected the site, the lawsuit states, he removed the feeder and left his business card attached to the tree stand.
Corwin said he immediately visited the Blakes as soon as he learned of the problem.
“When you make a mistake, you need to own up to it,’’ he said. “I apologized to Mr. Blake for trespassing on his property and cutting those trees, and I offered to do what I could to help restore the situation.’’
As Corwin recalled, the elder Blake ‘basically said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ ’’ Months later, however, Corwin said, he received notice of a potential lawsuit, and subsequently rejected requests from the Blakes to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the damage.
The Blakes’ attorney, Konstantine Kyros, said in a statement that the family filed the lawsuit only reluctantly “after repeatedly asking the defendant to make things right. The entire episode has been an ordeal for the Blake family, which now seeks justice through the courts.
Corwin’s attorney, Scott Bettencort, declined to comment, saying he had yet to review the suit.
For Corwin, the most dismaying accusation in the lawsuit is that he violated numerous state hunting regulations at the site, including baiting deer and hunting at night.
“I have never, ever hunted over bait or hunted at night,’’ Corwin said. “I would never intentionally violate laws when it comes to this stuff.’’
According to his 2009 book, “A Wild Life: The Authorized Biography,’’ Corwin has been fascinated with wildlife since he was 3 years old and received a billy goat as a gift from his parents.
A 1985 graduate of Norwell High School, he enlisted in the Army National Guard, which helped him finance his college education. He earned bachelor’s degrees in biology and anthropology from Bridgewater State University, and a master’s in wildlife and fisheries conservation from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Bridgewater State has also awarded him an honorary doctorate in public education.
In 2004, Corwin won his first Daytime Emmy, for outstanding performer in a children’s series, "Jeff Corwin Unleashed,’’ on the Discovery Kids Channel. He also won Daytime Emmys in 2014 and 2016 for ABC’s “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin.’’
Corwin has traveled the world to promote wildlife protection, and his autobiography cites the damage caused by “unnecessary hunting and habitat destruction’’ to species such as cheetahs.
In an interview Thursday, Corwin said Massachusetts has “had an incredibly successful recovery of white-tailed deer and turkey, and it’s wonderful to know that in the 21st century I can go out and put meat in the freezer and provide something for my family that I’ve harvested myself.’’
Corwin said he may have unintentionally crossed the Blake property at times while hunting through the years, but would have never cut the trees had he realized where he was.
The Blakes state in their lawsuit they paid $3,300 for a survey of the damaged land and cite a landscaper’s estimate of $43,290 to restore the property.
Corwin disputed the need for an “incredibly complex habitat restoration project to replace two dozen small pine trees that had a one- to three-inch diameter.’’
For his part, Corwin suggested he was paying a price for his public image.
"I don’t know how this went from me apologizing, to a lawsuit,’’ he said. “I feel like I’m in a very vulnerable position and being taken advantage of.’’