Killing coyotes to protect deer? It’s a practice that has been imbedded in Maine’s wildlife management policies for more than three decades, but it has led to grotesque abuses of this important carnivore and is as foolish as stringing beads on a cord with no knot on the end.

Karen Coker

The now dominant view of experts — canid biologists and wildlife managers whose control programs have failed — is this: wanton killing of coyotes is counterproductive. The animals have a sophisticated reproductive response that results in more, not fewer, coyotes.

Respected canid researcher Robert Crabtree, Ph.D., says, “It cannot be over-emphasized how powerfully coyote populations compensate for population reductions.”

In addition to increased breeding, aggressive coyote killing creates vacant habitats that quickly draw-in new coyotes. It also creates pack instability, which ushers in a host of other problems.

In light of compelling evidence that persecution of coyotes is an ineffective method to increase deer numbers, it is past time for Maine to change course. Our citizens, including our ethical deer hunters and our legislators, must call for an end to the brutal, year-round war on these important predators.

Maine’s current policy supports trapping, shooting, baiting, night-hunting, killing contests and hounding of coyotes without limit. Up to six radio-collared hunting dogs, trained to chase down, rip apart and kill coyotes, can legally run—when unaccompanied by their owners—on posted private property because Maine exempts hunting dogs from trespass law.

Paul Reynolds’ recent column and prior columns promoting and praising this pernicious slaughter, including killing contests, perpetuates misinformation and instills hatred toward predators, which delays long-overdue policy changes.

Every element of our state’s coyote management policy should be scrutinized, with special attention paid to an absurd law that authorized — more than 30 years ago — Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to a pay hired agents to kill coyotes in areas where they are considered “a threat to deer”. The 2018-19 cost of the program was $69,670—an average of $180. per animal.

Those who insist that coyotes don’t belong in Maine and work, in vain, to remove them have not taken the opportunity to be educated by Maine scientist Geri Vistein. She is a carnivore conservation biologist who travels across the state and maintains a website,
to educate Mainers about coyotes and teach them skills for living well with them.

“Coyotes are the best thing to happen to our deer herds since past generations killed off cougars and wolves in Maine 150 years ago,” she says. “The predator-prey relationship is essential. When predators are present, deer are larger and healthier. Healthy, biologically-diverse ecosystems should be our goal, and predator-prey balance is a key part of that.”

When asked about the concern of lower deer numbers in Northern Maine, Vistein is quick to respond. “They were never there historically. It’s not a place for deer to thrive because the winters are too cold and the snow is too deep for them to move easily. Deer like edge habitat, not forests. They only moved north after the forests were cut down.”

Vistein’s work with Maine farmers is enabling them to protect their animals non-lethally by adopting new animal husbandry practices and by understanding the ecology of their carnivore neighbors.

She would like to see wildlife managers shift their focus from measuring how many coyotes are here to more fully consider coyotes’ sociological and ecological role within the broader ecosystem. The science of carnivores today is focused on looking at their role, not their numbers.

“Stable coyote families with large territories should be our goal,” insists Vistein. Constant killing interferes with the mechanism that governs how they control their own populations. Fear and demonization of coyotes needs to be replaced by respect.”

Neither scientists nor wildlife management agencies advise us on what is moral or what we should value, but there is always an ethical dimension to an activity that involves the taking of life. Across the U.S., an increasingly-educated and aware public is stepping up to raise these questions and challenge policies.

In March dozens of Maine citizens and associations, including the Maine Farm Bureau, testified in opposition to a legislative proposal that sought to legalize the killing of coyotes on Sunday. The proposal was immediately defeated. Mainers are paying more attention to wildlife-management practices, voicing our concerns, and making it clear that we take our role as citizen stewards of our wildlife seriously.

Karen Coker is director of WildWatch Maine, an independent wildlife advocacy group working to put the ethical treatment of wildlife and best-available science at the center of wildlife policy.

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