From the outdoors

Ron Joseph: Maine’s expensive war on coyotes harms other wildlife

Posted:  Wednesday, February 20, 2013 - 3:00pm
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The majority of Maine citizens are unaware that their tax dollars are funding a controversial coyote-killing program. It’s more unlikely that residents understand that exterminating coyotes also risks maiming and killing lynx, eagles and other non-target animals.

After seeing bobcats, foxes, and deer killed in traps and snares set for coyotes, it became clear to me that predator control programs are ineffectual and barbaric.

On Nov. 7, a trapper phoned the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) to report a rare lynx that he’d unintentionally caught in a coyote trap in central Aroostook County. IFW biologists Jen Vashon and Rich Hoppe, and a veterinarian drove quickly to the trap site. They sedated the animal and found two small lacerations and mild swelling on its right front foot. The 31-pound male lynx, a federally protected threatened species, was treated with antibiotics and fluids. It recovered from the sedative and walked into the woods. Since September, ten lynx have been caught in foothold traps designed to hold coyotes until they can be shot with a pistol.

From 1985 to 2012, obsessed with killing coyotes to ostensibly protect the state’s deer herd, the Maine Legislature deliberated 38 coyote bills. Most proposed bills did not become law, including L.D. 182, An Act To Give An Antlerless (Doe) Deer Permit To A Person Who Kills 5 or More Coyotes. The absurd 1997 bill died in a legislative committee. However, L.D. 902, An Act Relating To Coyote Control, was passed by the legislature in 1985. The law authorized IFW to pay trappers to kill coyotes with wire neck snares. In a March 14, 2003 Bangor Daily News story, IFW stated that the snaring program cost the agency $40,000 a year. According to former State Rep. Linda McKee (D-Wayne), who co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill to terminate the 17-year-old coyote control program in 2003: “The snaring program cost the state $680,000. That money would have been far better spent purchasing deer yard habitat or building a school.” McKee said, “I think it’s a snubbing of the general public’s interest. This committee is not reflective of the public.”

The committee McKee referred to was the 121st Maine Legislature’s Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee co-chaired by former State Rep. Matt Dunlap, D-Old Town. Membership on the 12-member Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is highly coveted. Historically, male legislators with anti-predator agendas and close ties to hunting and trapping organizations have dominated the committee. For three decades, this committee has been accountable first and foremost to special interest groups and not the general public. After leaving the legislature, Dunlap became executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), a special interest group that lobbies in favor of coyote control bills. SAM successfully lobbied for the defeat of McKee’s bill.

From 1988 to 1990, I supervised IFW’s coyote control program in the Moosehead Lake region. After seeing bobcats, foxes, and deer killed in traps and snares set for coyotes, it becameclear to me that predator control programs are ineffectual and barbaric. That message was re-enforced one winter day when a skilled coyote trapper entered my Greenville office to report that a state and federal endangered adult bald eagle had died in one of his snares. We then car-pooled to the Bangor IFW office to discuss how to avoid snaring eagles and other non-target animals in the future. Incredulous over the fuss of one dead eagle, the trapper opined: “I’ve killed 22 coyotes this winter and only one eagle. That’s an acceptable ratio.”

Many IFW biologists graduated from the University of Maine, which is recognized nationally as one of the best wildlife schools in the country. The recurring question these same biologists have asked since 1985 is why spend precious state dollars on an ineffective coyote control program that risks killing or injuring other wildlife? The answer lies in the cozy relationship among Augusta’s lawmakers and lobbyists who frequently display their contempt of professional state biologists.

SAM and The Maine Trappers Association (MTA) represent hunters, fishermen, and trappers. For several decades, both special interest groups cultivated favored status with powerful legislators and politically appointed IFW commissioners. Their pro-coyote control agenda trumps science.

In 1999, IFW’s coyote assessment report warned of the futility of an expensive coyote control program: “large numbers of coyotes can be taken annually from an area without realizing a long term reduction in their population size (coyotes can withstand annual reductions of 70 percent). A long-term reduction of coyote numbers is probably not attainable. A proportion of deer killed by coyotes would have died from other mortality factors during the winter.”

IFW is not at fault for administering a biologically indefensible program. The agency is required to implement coyote control programs mandated by the legislature. Blame lawmakers for wasting taxpayer dollars by ignoring professional wildlife biologists. Like many of my former IFW colleagues, I’m not opposed to killing coyotes but I am opposed to publicly funded coyote-killing programs. There’s a steady stream of new legislators with each legislative session. None of them study the history of failed legislative coyote control programs.

Retired biologist Henry Hilton oversaw IFW’s coyote control program for 20 years. He states: “The deer herd can not be increased by killing coyotes. Females double their litter size to compensate for deaths of neighboring coyotes. Despite a 25-year effort to reduce coyotes through snaring, trapping and liberal hunting seasons, Maine’s coyote population of 13,000 has remained unchanged since 1985.”

These facts are inconvenient truths to Augusta’s revolving door politicians and lobbyists. David Trahan, SAM’s executive director, is a former Republican State Senator from Waldoboro. As a legislator, Trahan was a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife that advocated L.D. 372, An Act To Reduce Deer Predation. The 2012 law is a deceptively worded $200,000 coyote control program.

Trahan now lobbies his former committee members to support the continuation of predator programs. Representative Paul T. Davis, (R-Sangerville) chaired the 125th Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife when L.D. 372 became law. Davis is also a SAM Board member and its Treasurer. Skip Trask, MTA staffer from 1996 to 2012, lobbied legislators on behalf of coyote trappers. Before joining MTA, Trask worked as IFW’s Deputy Commissioner lobbying lawmakers.

In a January 2003 MTA newsletter, Trask disparaged IFW biologist Wally Jacubas for answering a reporter’s questions about the state’s coyote snaring program. Coyotes strangled by wire snares, Jacubas explained, suffer slow agonizing deaths as accumulating hemorrhaged blood swells the brain. Trask was furious that Jacubas, a public employee, shared necropsy data with the public.

SAM and MTA represent 1% of the state’s 1.3 million residents yet their lobbying disproportionately dictates state wildlife policy for the other 99%. On January 1, L.D. 372, signed by Governor LePage last May, authorizes an additional $100,000 to kill coyotes in 2013 (L.D 372 authorized $100,000 for coyote control in 2012). The money comes from the General Fund at a time when LePage recently slashed state agency budgets by $35.5 million.

The 126th Legislature recently hosted a public hearing on L.D. 96, a proposed coyote bounty bill that would allow trapping of coyotes from October until February. The financial portion of the bill was deleted after several conservationists pointed out that it is illegal to use federal Pitman-Robinson Act funds to pay bounty hunters and trappers. But the bill may be rewritten to extend the trapping season to kill more coyotes. This would put more non-target animals at risk of injury or death. Maine’s costly unwinnable war on coyotes continues.

 

Ron Joseph of Camden is a retired Maine wildlife biologist and a deer hunter.


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