The state fears threatened species may be harmed in the trapping efforts.

BANGOR (AP) – Coyote snaring in Maine has been suspended against the threat of a lawsuit claiming that the state’s program violates the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is putting the program on hold until it gets a federal permit absolving the department of liability under the law.

The concern is that the state could face large fines if licensed snarers inadvertently kill or harm threatened species like Canada lynx or bald eagles.

“The take of threatened and endangered species is a serious issue, and the department’s responsibility is to ensure that the potential for take is minimized in all of its programs,” wrote Roland “Dan” Martin, the department’s commissioner, in a letter to legislators.

The state has hired snarers to kill hundreds of coyotes each winter since the early 1980s in hopes of protecting struggling deer populations in far eastern and northern Maine from the predators.

Under Maine law, snares are illegal unless used to trap beavers or under the state-sponsored coyote program, which typically runs from December to March.

But early this year, a group called NoSnare Task Force threatened to sue the department if the program continued without federal permission.

And in July, Attorney General Steven Rowe issued an opinion that the state could be liable if a wire neck snare harmed a federally threatened or endangered species.

Without the federal permit, fines for killing just one animal could reach $75,000.

Martin expressed support for the snaring program in his letter to members of the legislative fisheries and wildlife committee.

But he decided to suspend snaring after discussing the potential consequences of a lawsuit with Rowe and the governor’s office.

“There’s no point in slugging this out in court,” agreed Rep. Matt Dunlap, D-Old Town, who serves as the committee’s chairman.

Daryl DeJoy of NoSnare said his group remains ready to go to court if it becomes necessary.

“Although we’re disappointed that Commissioner Martin still supports a program that has no evidence to prove its effectiveness, we’re happy he is showing the leadership to do what’s right for the state of Maine,” DeJoy said.

The incidental take permit would free the state of liability if a small number of endangered species were killed accidentally in state-sponsored snares.

State records indicate that at least two eagles and one lynx were killed in snares set for coyotes during past seasons.

Snaring opponents believe the number of protected species deaths is much higher than the department acknowledges. They also believe that federally threatened gray wolves could be at risk in far northern Maine.

The permit application is still being fine-tuned and has not yet been submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for consideration, said Mark Latti, spokesman for the state wildlife department.

He said the department expects a permit to be issued sometime this winter. But federal biologists have said that the approval process can last as long as nine months. The snaring season typically lasts only until March, so snaring may not occur this winter at all.

AP-ES-10-01-03 1040EDT

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