Coyote Control Program?
By Bob Noonan

I recently spent an afternoon with Gerry Lavigne, the retired IFW biologist and respected whitetail deer expert, talking about the need to control coyotes to help deer populations in eastern and northern Maine.

It has long been accepted that coyotes can really hurt Maine's deer populations, in particular while they're yarded up in winter, and during spring fawn season. "The most critical period," Lavigne told me, "is from March to July. Removing coyote family groups near winter yarding areas benefits deer noticeably. In one instance in Quebec, only 17 coyotes were removed with footholds during the summer near one deer winter yarding area, yet biologists saw a significant decrease in winter deer predation for a full two years. Predator control is a valid, legitimate, scientifically proven wildlife management tool."

Biologists here in the Northeast did enough studies in the 70s and 80s to prove that coyotes are important deer predators, taking not just the old and weak, but when conditions are right taking whatever age class they want. The public became well aware of this, and could also see the drop in deer populations in eastern and northern Maine. They demanded action.

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"The 1983 Legislature," Lavigne said, "mandated that IFW implement a coyote control program for the protection of deer. Unfortunately it did not provide funding, and how the program was implemented was left up to the IFW Commissioner."

Creation of the Maine snaring program was the first IFW attempt at coyote control, and it was extremely successful in helping specific vulnerable deer populations recover. Unfortunately, snaring was put on hold when animal rights groups threatened in 2003 to sue the state over the supposed "failure" to protect lynx from being accidentally snared.

"IFW approached the Attorney General for advice," Lavigne said, "but he wasn't too excited about fighting to keep the program, so IFW decided to apply for a federal Incidental Take Permit (ITP)."

In essence, an ITP is granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife when a state demonstrates that it has taken every reasonable precaution to avoid the catch of a threatened or endangered species. If an ITP was granted, IFW could continue its snaring program without fear of lawsuit, or any legal repercussion if a lynx was taken.

IFW didn't anticipate too much trouble getting the ITP because in all the years the snaring program had been in operation, only one incidental lynx had been taken. Also, extensive work was done on the application to make sure it properly covered the bases.

The ITP application was submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Regional office in Old Town, and to the Northeast office in Hadley, Mass. But the response to the application was, according to Lavigne, "a 50-page diatribe of arbitrary opinion irrelevant to snaring either coyotes or lynx. It got into all kinds of side issues like deer yard management, and asked us to come up with information they knew we didn't have, like scientific proof that coyote reduction increased deer numbers in Maine. We had plenty of scientific proof from Quebec, but they wouldn't accept that, even though the habitat and weather conditions were identical. They wanted the biology behind the benefits of reducing coyote populations, based on studies done in Maine. We (biologists) had all kinds of anecdotal evidence, and in the 80s we had proposed scientific studies, but they never got funded. IFW never really seriously considered doing the studies.

"There's no question," Lavigne continued, "that the federal response to our ITP application was a deliberate, obvious roadblock. In my opinion IFW essentially gave up at that point."

According to a 10-year-old University of Maine study, back then big game hunting brought over $300 million into Maine each year. Those figures are obviously higher now; this writer has heard educated estimates of $600 million and over. And the whitetail deer comprises probably 90% of big game hunting. The loss of deer hunting opportunities due to coyote predation in eastern and northern Maine has cost the state, and the local economies, a tremendous amount of money. When the snaring program reduced coyotes in these areas, deer numbers and hunting income rebounded. They crashed again when snaring was stopped. The need for some sort of control is obvious.

"Predator control," Lavigne pointed out, "has always been something the Legislature has demanded that IFW do. But IFW has never come up with a specific control program. It's not for lack of people trying. Every 10 years IFW updates its management goals, and biologists identify the obstacles to those goals. Always, coyote predation on deer has been presented as an obstacle to deer population goals in eastern and northern Mainežand always, IFW has done nothing about it.

"When the public complained again about coyotes in the early 1990s, we again advocated scientific studies showing that control workedžand again the program went nowhere. The exact same concerns were addressed again in 1999-2000. At that time it was actually promulgated by IFW itself that wherever deer populations were below the long-term objective, coyote control will be implemented. Yet today there is still no practical coyote management program on the ground.

"Through the years there has never been a lot of enthusiasm or coordinated efforts on the part of IFW to control predators. It would require setting up a scientifically based management program, and IFW has steadfastly avoided studies to show how effective coyote control might be, or what it would cost. Although coyote hunting is allowed year round and night hunting is allowed from January through April, much more is needed. No one in IFW is looking seriously at ways to increase the coyote take, or even apparently to recognize the need. ADC agents need to be given more encouragement. It doesn't have to be just about snaring. Certified people proficient in snow trapping with footholds could be encouraged to work near sporting camps located near deer yards, for example. The current coyote foothold trapping season ends December 31, and despite requests to extend the season through March, when it would do the most good, IFW has not seen fit to allow this. The coyote night hunting season could be extended to year round. Hunting with dogs can be particularly effective in deep snow conditions, and this needs to be explored more. What about denning? There has been no exploration, no work done on methods. No one's doing their homework.

"The excuse has been used that there's no money for a control program. In my opinion it's a matter of commitment; when the commitment is made, money shows up. Look at the money available for endangered species today!

"It's too easy for IFW to use the lynx situation as a way to avoid developing and implementing any type of coyote control program. Lynx aren't even an issue in some places anyway. Downeast badly needs coyote controlžand there are no lynx Downeast! Why can't we allow snaring in areas where lynx don't even exist?"

"The loss of thousands of acres of habitat and deer yards is definitely a factor in eastern and northern Maine. But you can't use that as the only reason. Eastern and northern deer populations are below the carrying capacity for the deer yards we do have, because of coyote predation. We can do better than four deer per square mile; in many situations we can have up to 10. Our short-term goal should be to bring deer numbers up to the carrying capacity for existing habitat. Increasing the amount of suitable habitat should be the long-term goal.

"Eastern and northern Maine deserve, and can biologically afford, a better deer herd.

"No one wants to eliminate coyotes. But why do we have to maintain coyote numbers at their maximum carrying capacity, like they currently are, at the expense of deer numbers? We can reduce coyotes in specific problem areas, to where we can have both deer and coyotes. "That's wildlife management. That's IFW's job."

Bob Noonan is a veteran trapper and outdoorsman, and has been an outdoor writer for over 20 years.

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