Beginning in January 2013, Maine will implement an ill-advised coyote bounty program, ostensibly to help rebuild northern Maine’s depleted deer herd.
On May 21, Gov. Paul LePage signed L.D. 342, "An Act To Reduce Deer Predation." The legislation provides $100,000 to pay bounty hunters to kill coyotes.
Since the early 1900s, expensive and barbaric coyote bounties have failed miserably in western states, but that knowledge carries no weight in Augusta. If one thing has been learned from LePage’s first two years in office, it is this: science is irrelevant.
Federal and state agencies have killed hundreds of thousands of coyotes with M-44 cyanide capsules, strychnine and 1080 poisons, bullets from airplanes and helicopters, and neck strangulation wires. Coyotes have been run down by snowmobiles, killed with leg hold traps, and buried alive in their dens. The only weapon not yet tried is drone strikes (memo to Maine coyotes: fear not, a drone strike costs more than $100,000).
It seems counterintuitive, but the war on coyotes has actually increased their numbers and breeding range. The Colorado Division of Wildlife reports that coyotes are more numerous today than when the state was first settled by trappers. Colorado and other western states no longer waste taxpayer money on futile coyote control programs.
But none of that matters to LePage, Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, or Sen. Tom Martin, R-Benton, chairman of the Legislature's Fish and Wildlife Committee. LePage’s preposterous bounty plan is the latest example of why politicians should leave wildlife management to professional state biologists.
I offer an audacious alternative plan. The $100,000 earmarked for killing coyotes should be used, instead, to capture several hundred deer in southern Maine and send them to deer-deprived northern Maine in early November.
The deer relocation program would accomplish four important goals.
One, it would bolster deer numbers in Aroostook County at the onset of deer hunting season.
Two, it would lower excessively high deer densities in southern Maine, thereby reducing Lyme disease rates and automobile-deer collisions. This would prevent injuries and lower insurance premiums.
Three, southern Maine’s fruit and vegetable farm yields would improve markedly with fewer deer.
Four, southern Maine deer could become goodwill ambassadors, bridging the divide separating the two ballyhooed Maines. My tongue-in-cheek plan is absurd, but no more so than the governor’s.
Killing coyotes may temporarily "save" a few deer for hunters to kill. But the Legislature — not coyotes — is largely to blame for northern Maine's low deer population.
In the late 1990s, under pressure from major timberland owners, state government abandoned regulations that capped the amount of harvested wood in deer wintering areas. Without adequate mature coniferous tree cover, deer have little chance of surviving winters with deep snow. Deer populations would rebound by reinstating deer wintering area timber harvest regulations.
But that won't happen in the LePage anti-environmental regulation administration.
Instead of addressing the shortage of deer wintering habitat — the real reason deer populations are depressed — the governor is appeasing the deer hunting community by paying bounty hunters to kill coyotes with traps, rifles and hounds. (This implies that all deer hunters want this or believe in this “science,” but that is not the case.)
Politicians have made the coyote the scapegoat to deflect attention from their poor record of regulating and protecting deer wintering areas. Commissioner Woodcock and LePage laud the virtues of voluntary cooperative landowner agreements in lieu of regulating timber harvests in deer wintering areas.
Cooperative agreements may sound great, but they are legally unenforceable and, therefore, ineffective.
If you remain unconvinced that lack of winter shelter is the primary reason northern Maine supports few deer, please consider this: Minnesota and Michigan deer herds are much healthier than Maine’s. Minnesota and Michigan winters are as difficult as Maine’s. Deer in both of those states must also avoid being eaten by coyotes and wolves.
So the logical question LePage, Woodcock, Martin and deer hunters should ask is this: What are Minnesota and Michigan doing differently to maintain healthy deer populations? The answer: Both states prioritize protecting deer wintering areas through land purchases, conservation easements and regulating excessive timber harvests.
Maine’s bounty system is a charade and an insult to all of us who hunt deer and whose livelihoods (sporting lodges and guides) depend on healthy deer herds.
Coyote populations will remain unchanged after the governor and Legislature squander $100,000 on coyote bounties in 2013. Those funds would be better spent duplicating the habitat protection success stories in Minnesota and Michigan.
Ron Joseph of Camden is a retired Maine wildlife biologist.