Deer recovery in Eastern and Northern Maine is not working.

Washington County, which once boasted the highest deer numbers in Maine, now competes with Northern Maine for the fewest white-tailed deer per square mile. Sportsmen, outfitters and guides are angry and worried about the future and looking to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which is responsible for managing and protecting our deer population statewide, to do something.

Although deer-yard preservation and forest regrowth is the critical long-term component for deer recovery, controlling coyote predation of healthy deer in wintering areas is a useful stop-gap measure. Quebec used deer-yard coyote control successfully in helping its deer herd recover.

The only area in Downeast Maine that has seen any deer recovery is Passamaquoddy tribal land, where coyote control, through snaring, is regularly practiced. In the words of John Sewell, tribal wildlife biologist for the Passamaquoddies, “We have an active coyote snaring program. We are using snares as an effective tool in trained hands, and we are protecting deer when they need it most. During the past six years, our annual take of coyotes from our one deer yard has averaged 44. Over the past four years, the deer harvest in our township has increased each year.”

The abbreviated history of Maine’s coyote program is complicated, and, as with so many other wildlife management issues, obscured by a fog of lawyers, litigation, and failures of leadership.

A turning point for the worst took place in 2003, when Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Roland Martin, at the urging of Maine’s attorney general, suspended the coyote-control program. The attorney general was worried about a potential lawsuit over the accidental taking of Canada lynx. The suspension was expected to last one snaring season until the state could acquire an incidental take permit (ITP) from the U.S. government.

Four years later, we have no federal ITP, and coyotes continue for the fourth year to kill wintering deer in Eastern and Northern Maine. To make matters worse, sportsmen learned recently that MDIF&W, too busy with an anti-trapping lawsuit, decided to quietly suspend the ITP application process for coyote control.

Learning of this, the Washington County Conservation Association (WCCA) has petitioned the governor to direct the Fish and Wildlife commissioner to assign a full-time staff person to the ITP application process. WCCA, which was assured last year that the return of a coyote-control program was “imminent,” had this to say:

“This type of performance, or lack of it, by a state agency is unacceptable. In all conscience, persons responsible should be held accountable. To watch MDIF&W do a tap dance for four years around an application that should take three hours to complete is simply outrageous.”

Who is to blame? Whose case should sportsmen get on? There is plenty of blame to go around.

In backtracking this whole coyote-control controversy, you wind up at ground zero – the Endangered Species Act. It is the seminal culprit. For all the good that it purports to do, it is the fulcrum that allows animal-rights advocates to bring unrelenting lawsuits and threats of lawsuits against state wildlife managers. The reason for suspending the coyote-snaring application was to fry bigger fish, to prepare its case in Bangor court to defend a legal attempt to ban trapping. This suit, brought by the Animal Protection Institute, would end trapping in Maine, including the snaring of coyotes.

In my view, there is also an issue of leadership. MDIF&W’s resource director, Ken Elowe, readily concedes that there are, among Departmental biologists and policymakers, contrasting views about the usefulness of coyote-control programs. This was evident in Elowe’s testimony on SAM’s bill that would have directed the Department, for the second time in this decade, to create a coyote-management system. Elowe testified, “There is scientific evidence that predator-control programs to benefit big-game species are highly effective. There is also evidence that predator-control programs are highly ineffective.”

This Departmental ambivalence about controlling coyote predation on wintering deer is not encouraging. It is, in fact, downright distressing to guides and outfitters whose paychecks depend on a viable deer population. Sportsmen, guides and outfitters have made it clear. They want a coyote-control program.

Our commissioner has a constitutional obligation, not only to protect lynx and eagles, but also our deer populations. The attorney general was not appointed to manage Maine’s wildlife resources. Our Fish and Wildlife commissioner has this responsibility. If the commissioner’s staff of professionals can’t decide, if it can’t develop a clear-cut rationale whether to support or not to support a coyote damage-control program in deer-recovery areas, then he needs to help his people get off the fence.

Anything less is a failure of leadership.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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