GRAND LAKE STREAM – Dave Tobey does not particularly care for coyotes, but he may have a stronger distaste for the wily predators’ would-be protectors.

Standing over the bones of a deer carcass, Tobey explains how his livelihood as a hunting guide faces threats from both the coyotes that kill deer and the conservationists trying to ban coyote snaring.

“To us in the last 100 years, the coyote is like an invasive species,” he said. “Do we sit back and let them run rampant?”

Tobey is licensed in the state’s coyote snaring program, which has become the subject of a debate that underscores the state’s north-south divide, pitting hunters against environmentalists and rural interests versus urban values.

Legislative efforts to ban snaring have been stymied this session, and on Tuesday the Maine Senate gave its preliminary approval to a bill that would preserve the practice with added oversight. An activist group called the NoSnare Task Force is now planning to sue to end snaring in Maine.

Defenders say the current snaring program, overseen by the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, helps protect fragile local deer populations from decimation by predators. They also say that today’s snares are more humane than older versions that often took days to kill.

Opponents say the snares – wire loops often placed near food sources that snag animals’ necks and tighten as they struggle to escape – are cruel to coyotes and deadly to other animals. And they argue there is no evidence that snaring is actually effective in thinning the population of coyotes.

The debate both inside and outside the Legislature has been rancorous, so much so that it often seems out of proportion with snaring’s actual impact.

During the winter of 2001-2002, 58 snarers reported killing 564 coyotes, according to state records obtained by snaring opponents. Also reported caught were 36 non-target animals, including 18 fox and nine deer, though snaring foes estimate the actual number is much higher.

Whatever the merits, there seems to be an unbridgeable gap between the sportsmen who feel their hunting traditions are under attack and the conservationists who see snaring as cruel and unnecessary. At times the debate is downright hostile.

Daryl Dejoy of NoSnare derides those who want to kill coyotes just to preserve deer populations that will be later hunted.

“Essentially we’re dealing with relatively uneducated people whose world is as large as what they see,” Dejoy said. “What they are trying to do is save the deer so they can shoot them.”

George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said that anti-snaring forces have a broader agenda: “It’s much bigger than coyote snaring. It’s really a feeling that our whole tradition is being attacked.”

That tradition is embodied in towns like Grand Lake Stream, a hunting and fishing outpost set amid the brooks and lakes of eastern Maine.

Hunters in this area, along the northern edge of the deer’s habitat, worry about the deer herd’s size. Though deer are plentiful in southern and central Maine, with an estimated 20 deer per square mile, eastern and northern parts of the state have just one-fifth that density.

State wildlife officials emphasize that coyote snaring is just one of several tools used to restore the local deer population. The most important step, they say, is protecting the areas where does, bucks and fawns wait out Maine’s long winters.

Tobey keeps track of where coyotes have slaughtered deer during the winter, and he sets snares nearby in the hope that the coyotes will return. Sometimes Tobey will move a deer carcass onto a frozen lake, hoping to fell a nearby coyote with a long-distance gunshot. Coyotes can be hunted year-round, and there are no bag limits.

He believes these efforts have helped the local deer population rebound. Hunters last year reported killing 37 deer, up from just four in 1992, Tobey says.

But coyotes are quite adaptable, and research has suggested that killing them simply causes more rapid reproduction, said Jon Schwedler of the Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Mont.

“Coyotes are just really resilient,” he said. “You just tend to breed smarter coyotes.”

Chuck Hulsey of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries in Wildlife agreed in a November 2001 memo in which he wrote: “The number of coyotes removed through recreational snaring has no effect on reducing coyotes.”

“They have survived and succeeded due to: 1) an almost unique ability to exploit and occupy any habitat from Los Angeles, CA, to T10, R10, ME, and 2) a reproductive strategy allowing them to rapidly compensate for decrease in their ranks,” he wrote.

Other state officials, and even some Maine hunters, have also expressed regrets about the snaring program. In February, the Maine chapter of The Wildlife Society, a professional organization whose membership includes many state wildlife biologists, voiced concerns with the program, in part because of the risks of snaring non-target animals.

Bucky Owen, the state wildlife department’s commissioner from 1993-1997, does not want to ban snaring. But he says the program needs tighter monitoring to protect the Canada lynx, a threatened species under federal law.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate to be up there snaring in lynx habitat,” he said. “I think we’re going back to the Dark Ages with broad spectrum predator control. It’s like the Old West.”

Although state biologists are divided on snaring’s value, the practice is authorized under state law, and officials at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife say they have no choice but to administer a program.

“We do manage one species against another many times because that’s what the public wants,” said Ken Elowe, a department biologist.

It’s also clear that the hunting lobby has exerted its influence on lawmakers.

At a recent committee work session in Augusta on a bill that would have eliminated coyote snaring, all but one legislator voted for an amendment to overhaul the bill and preserve the program.

Before the vote was taken, one committee member turned to ask Skip Trask of the Maine Trappers Association for his view. “I believe we could live with what you propose,” Trask responded.

After the session ended, the room remained crowded as rural trappers and urban conservationists chatted among themselves. Neither side seemed to have much interest in engaging the other.

Gary Sewell, a snaring defender, summed up the conflict: “There are two Maines. I hate to say it … but it’s true.”

AP-ES-04-12-03 1251EDT

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