Coyote Deer Slaughter
By Randy Spencer
"I was born and brought up here and I've never seen or heard of anything like this," said Passamaquoddy Chief Warden, Bill Nicholas. "I've talked to everyone I could think of and no one could come up with anything this extreme," said Maine Warden, Brad Richard. The scene was ghoulish: 19 deer laid out on the ice with two more to be added to the death toll later. All but one were females, most of them pregnant, adult does.
One of the most respected Master Guides in eastern Maine had made the discoveries on a section of the St. Croix River in northern Washington County, just north of Grand Falls Dam. Professional Guide and trapper, Bill Gillespie worked until this year as a state-certified snarer under IF&W's Animal Damage Control (ADC) program.
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Gillespie was in Fowler Township checking a migratory crossing to a known deer yard on the Canadian side of the river. He had been discovering mangled deer carcasses there over the winter months. "I've been finding an average of 3 kills per week, not counting this. Last year while we were still snaring, I found one deer kill due to coyotes all season."
On a section of the river known as Rolling Tier, Gillespie noticed what looked like humps pushed up against a shelf of ice in the river along with tree parts, grass, and debris. "I was finally able to make out 8 carcasses floating there," he said. When he returned with binoculars, the mass had grown to 13. This time, he went for help.
To investigate Gillespie's find, Warden Matthew Dana was sent from the tribal Warden Service, and Brad Richard from the Maine Warden Service. Wade Lola, Roger Socobasin, and John Socobasin accompanied Gillespie to help with the retrieval operation. By "pick-poling" a canoe over the ice and into open water, and with the aid of ropes, the deer were extracted one by one and hauled up onto safe ice. They were then loaded into the Old Town Discovery canoe and hauled behind an ATV to shore.
How did the 21 deer meet their end? "Most experienced trappers have seen how a pack of coyotes work deer near water, " said Gillespie. "They may follow a wintering herd (as in this case) until they come close to the river. That's when they make their move."
Gillespie describes a deadly scenario in which coyotes, like sheep dogs, "herd" deer, one, two, or three at a time toward the water until they are painted into a corner. "I have seen deer forced into the river with coyotes on both sides, only to die there of hypothermia rather than get out of that water."
"There's no question in my mind that this was the work of coyotes," said Passamaquoddy Warden Chief Nicholas. The section where the slaughter occurred abuts Passamaquoddy land. Even as Maine abandoned its ADC program this year under threat of legal action from the No Snare Task Force (citing the risk of accidental snaring of endangered species), the tribe instituted their own ADC.
"This year," said Warden Nicholas, "36 coyotes were trapped by our certified snarers and their trainees, working a minimum of 40 hours per week. This season, we found no deer kills on reservation land." Comparing it to the Fowler area, he added, "the area we're snaring is larger, has more year-round open water, and is home to a bigger deer herd."
The 21 deer, "with no signs of hunting mortality or other means of poaching," according to Warden Brad Richard, may have been forced, one or several at a time onto either unsafe ice or into deep, frigid, open water. "Who knows how many they actually got?" asked Gillespie, referring to the rest of the deer in the migratory herd. The dead deer may have been the ones that simply fell out of reach of the marauding coyotes. "It takes only 4 to 7 coyotes to do this much damage," he added.
The slaughter is the most vivid illustration to date of the consequences that may ensue when management measures are withdrawn. The collapse of those control options under political pressure aparently can, in just one season, reverse the gains made over the previous several years. The situation has area Guides, Wardens, and sportsman worried about similarly unpredictable consequences if a bear referendum were to succeed.
As a somber epilogue to Gillespie's gruesome discovery, he offered, "It would be typical coyote behavior for them (coyotes) to now follow the surviving migratory animals back to the spring fawning grounds. There, they will eventually take the lambs from the does, and a good number of does as well."
Randy Spencer is a Master Guide, writer, and musician living in Grand Lake Stream. Please visit www.randyspencer.com
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