By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 2/21/03
(Photo: Ray Rasmussen)
On Feb. 25, the legislature will begin debating whether to end coyote snaring in Maine. Meanwhile, this winter’s snaring program is going on under revised guidelines, despite an effort by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to further restrict it to better protect endangered and threatened species, such as the threatened Canada lynx. And trackers are reporting new evidence of lynx beyond previously documented areas in northern Aroostook County.
Two months ago, FWS called on the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW), which oversees snaring, to ban the activity in the lynx study area in the Musquacook lakes region and other places where lynx, bald eagles and wolves might be accidentally killed. Other major recommendations were to require trappers to tend their snares daily, not every three days; to prohibit bait from being used to attract animals to snares; and to end snaring in March, when the highly mobile lynx are on the move looking for a mate.
To date, IFW has not responded to the Dec. 18 letter from FWS critiquing the department’s new guidelines and asking for changes, according to Gordon Russell, supervisor of the federal agency’s Maine field office. Ken Elowe, head of IFW’s Bureau of Resource Assessment, intends to comment for the record but not alter the course of the current winter snaring activity that concludes March 31.
Elowe says he hadn’t had time to prepare a written response, alluding to other more pressing matters. IFW maintains that it is providing for the "reasonable" protection of non-target wildlife, regardless of FWS’ view. The department also agrees with snaring proponents that snaring helps protect some local deer populations in northern and eastern Maine from coyote predation.
IFW has understandably been "preoccupied," says Russell. The agency is facing a major budget deficit necessitating a $3.3 million cut in programs and staff, and an outside assessment in the agency’s fisheries division made public in January led to the immediate reassignment of the long-time head of the division and plans for implementing improvements. At the same time, there’s a change of command at IFW, as career administrator Roland "Danny" Martin of Caribou takes over the commissioner’s job.
However busy IFW is with other issues, FWS’ concerns and the snaring issue won’t go away. The anti-snaring group called NoSnare notified outgoing commissioner Lee Perry on Feb. 12 of their intent to file a lawsuit to end the use of the wire neck snare on Maine’s wildlife. The suit will charge the department with violating the ESA. Since the inception of the snaring program 20 years ago, three bald eagles and one lynx are known to have been illegally killed in snares.
And a recent ruling from a federal court judge is likely to push FWS into elevating the lynx’s status under the ESA to endangered, a designation that would require a stronger recovery plan than one related to a "threatened" listing.
The legislature has a chance to preclude the court suit and much of the other fighting over snaring. In response to its financial crisis, IFW has asked lawmakers to approve its own proposal to eliminate the Animal Damage Control Program, which includes coyote snaring. IFW spends at least $68,000 on coyote snaring annually, according to figures gathered by the department. "Nuisance wildlife will now need to be handled by the landowner, towns or by a private service," IFW said in a press release, anticipating support of its proposal by the legislature.
But even if lawmakers eliminate the program funding, that action wouldn’t necessarily cure the problem, say snaring opponents. As long as the legal structure allowing snaring remains in place, the activity could be resumed when funds are available again. That's why opponents are going ahead with their bills to ax the statutory authority for snaring, regardless of IFW’s bill.
On the other side, snaring supporters are prepared to lobby lawmakers hard to keep that authority in place – a move that could allow snaring outside IFW. George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), says his organization "will not manage a snaring program. We hope to maintain the authority at IFW even though there will be no funding for it if the budget proposal is enacted." Smith believes the trappers "are willing [to snare] without being paid or reimbursed expenses [by the state]." Skip Trask of the Maine Trappers’ Association couldn’t be reached for confirmation.
Maine Audubon Society wildlife biologist Jody Jones is outraged by the idea that snaring might go on with snarers in charge. "I think to have SAM or anybody besides our wildlife law enforcement agency and biologists supervising the snaring program would be a travesty – for obvious reasons," she says. "Their oversight to assure that non-target wildlife is appropriately documented is essential [because they’re] interested in wildlife, not just the snaring program. There would be a huge conflict of interest," Jones says.
"It’s time to say goodbye to the program," she continues. "The financial issues will resonate with the legislature now. But it’s time to look at the non-target issues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service letter said were not being appropriately addressed by IFW."
Maine Audubon is behind LD 237, the bill of Rep. Linda Rogers McKee (D-Wayne) , which would end coyote snaring and funding for the program but still allow hunting coyotes with firearms and dogs or trapping them without the use of snares. The bill offered by Rep. Tom Bull (D-Freeport) would eliminate snaring of all wildlife. Both bills will have airings before the legislative Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee on Tuesday afternoon.
Biologists from FWS’s Maine field office in Old Town met with IFW last Oct. 30 to discuss the snaring policy. IFW was pressed to make changes in wake of heated debate last year over the inhumane killing of coyotes by wire snares that left the canids, as well as unintended targets, to die slowly from strangulation and exposure, often over a period of days.
Although the snaring season began on Dec. 1, IFW’s final policy wasn’t in written form and available to the public until two weeks later. By the time FWS’s response went through channels, a quarter of the snaring season had gone by.
The FWS letter signed by Gordon Russell noted the significant revisions that IFW made to the snaring policy from the previous 2001-02 season:
The letter reviewed the increased knowledge of lynx presence in Maine due to IFW’s four-year study in the Musquacook lakes area. Prior to the study, IFW officials said that Maine didn’t have a breeding population – that lynx presence was interlopers from Quebec, where there’s a large self-sustaining population. But researchers, once they started looking, found a breeding group of lynx and to date have handled 67 lynx and found 17 dens.
"But none of the 37 kittens tagged in the study have been recaptured, possibly indicating dispersal away from their natal area," FWS said. "It is unclear whether snarers are obeying policy pertaining to snaring in the lynx study area, as one snarer reportedly deployed snares there last winter without IFW permission."
The letter called attention to the recent assessment of the historic literature by two University of Maine professors that proves "there has been a regular, historic presence in the northern part of the state." The university used occurrence data from Maine and adjacent Canadian provinces to develop a habitat model for lynx in Maine. It correctly predicted the existence of lynx in the Musquacook study area and other places the secretive species has left signs.
A snow tracking survey currently going on in the upper St. John River Valley townships outside the lynx study area is testing the habitat model and getting good results. FWS wildlife biologist Mark McCollough, who is part of the team looking for new lynx areas, reports that lynx tracks were found in seven of the eight townships checked when he was in the field a couple of weeks ago.
IFW has documented the incidental lynx capture and take of non-target species, FWS noted. The three mortalities of lynx occurred when one was accidentally trapped in 1992, one was snared in 1993 and one was killed by houndsmen in 1996. Seven other lynx have been reported caught in leghold traps since 1994 and released by IFW or the trapper. (A lynx was caught in a leghold trap two years ago and suffered a broken leg. It was treated at Tufts Animal Hospital and released with a radio-tag and remains in the Musquacook area.)
Neck snares are not selective for coyotes, as IFW has confirmed. An unofficial tally of non-target species captured last winter includes four bobcats, 17 red fox, eight deer, two snowshoe hares and two fishers, according to FWS. Bobcats, close in behavior and habitat use to lynx, have been reported as incidental catch each year for the last five years of the program. Referring to the risk of being snared, FWS pointed out that "the difference in shoulder height for coyotes (21 inches) and lynx (19 inches) is negligible." That’s why it is important for snarers to check their traps daily because snow conditions in the north country can change rapidly, altering the height of the snare above the ground and diminish its selectivity.
There has been a lot of speculation as to whether snarers would report all accidental lynx snarings, given the punishment they would face. "It is unclear whether all snarers file reports of non-target species taken in snares, as currently required," FWS said. For instance, an unannounced inspection by IFW wardens last winter determined that two deer had been snared but were unreported by the snarer, who is no longer certified.
Based on information from IFW, the letter said that lynx "likely will continue to be captured in traps or snares in the future. In light of the situation, FWS recommended the following:
Alternatives to snaring also should be evaluated, according to FWS, and "snaring should be a method of last resort. Other forms of animal damage control (such as shooting over bait, 24-hourly tended leg-hold traps or leg snares) may be viable options. FWS said that if snaring is "a last course of action, the number of snares should be restricted and the tending times reduced to 24 hours."
In all other IFW Wildlife Management Districts (WMD’s 1-9 and 13), FWS supported the department’s enhanced education approach. "The protocol for using care and caution and contacting a regional biologist immediately if a bobcat or lynx is snared is warranted," the agency said.
FWS recommended that snaring be "the last course of action in potential lynx habitat in late winter," particularly March. March is the breeding season for lynx. Data from northern Maine indicates that male lynx home ranges are larger during the winter than summer, and their movements increase substantially during the breeding time.
(Joan Sharrock painting)
Similarly, the female lynx’s home range is larger during the winter than summer. "We assume that greater movements and larger home ranges in late winter would expose lynx to higher risk of snaring," FWS said. The March breeding season is a time of dispersal for young lynx. "Young animals leaving their home range and mother would likely be at greater risk to snaring," FWS said.
Also making March a dangerous time for snaring is the usual fast-changing snow conditions that affect snare height. If snaring is the last option, it should be done only under the close supervision of a regional biologist, the number of snares limited and tending times reduced to 24 hours, FWS said.
The current 72-hour tending times reduces the possibility that non-target species can survive being snared in winter, FWS said. Exemptions "are regularly granted by IFW to extend tending snares up to seven days, particularly in the more remote areas of northern Maine," the agency said.
FWS recommended that snares be tended daily, especially in late winter and in the areas where there is a probability of lynx occurring. Daily tending, according to FWS, would enable the snarers to: better assess snow conditions and maintain the selectivity of the snares and have a greater probability of releasing non-target species alive and detecting the presence of lynx or wolf sign in the vicinity of the trapping area.
As for cam-lock snares, IFW said the attempt to hasten the death of snared animals and reduce suffering also may increase the chance that non-target species will be killed or harmed. Eagle stops (devices to prevent snares from closing completely) were eliminated in the 2001-02 snaring policy to avoid death or injury of bald eagles. "To avoid harming listed species, we recommend that IFW implement measures to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of snares in areas where lynx, bald eagles or gray wolves could occur," FWS said.
Two eagles were killed by snaring in the 1980s, and another bald eagle was killed by a snare last year, based on a forensic report from FWS’s Wildlife Health Lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Two snared coyote carcasses were found nearby. FWS said the use of bait attracts bald and golden eagles and other non-target species. Noting that bait was not permitted at the beginning of the snaring program, FWS suggested that it no longer be used with snaring to minimize risk to bald eagles and other non-target animals.
To monitor non-target catches, FWS recommended a system of third-party inspection and asked that IFW biologists and wardens (or perhaps others) accompany snarers on random checks of their trap lines.
(Photo: Earth Island)
IFW’s Ken Elowe indicated that if any of the changes recommended by FWS were to be done this year, it is more attention to checking trap lines by wardens. He says closer monitoring would allow the department to know if the reported non-target catch matches up with the actual catch.
FWS advised that it is preparing a rule that will exempt from prosecution trappers taking lynx incidentally in lawful hunting and trapping programs. Development of the rule "will require that we evaluate trapping regulations, snaring policies, record-keeping, education programs, monitoring, research and other factors that can influence recovery of the lynx," the agency said.
On the matter of gray wolves, IFW offered no protective strategies for the endangered animal, which is known to be living just across the border at Sherbrooke area in Quebec. IFW has publicly stated they wouldn’t interfere with a natural recovery of wolves in Maine and would protect any animals that naturally enter the state.
"Wolves would be expected to be attracted to concentrations of deer [and bait] and would be at risk to snaring," FWS said, recommending that IFW’s snaring protocol address avoiding incidental wolf capture.
Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).