IF&W Biologist Critical of Coyote Snaring Slated for Demotion

By Phyllis Austin, Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org). 3/11/03

The proposed change in positions and pay is not retribution against Jakubas to satisfy the trapping community, according to Ken Elowe, director of IFW’s Bureau of Resource Management.

Job demotion is planned for Wally Jakubas, the top mammal scientist at Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IFW) who was in charge of the controversial coyote necropsy report. The proposed change in positions and pay is not retribution against Jakubas to satisfy the trapping community, according to Ken Elowe, director of IFW’s Bureau of Resource Management. Rather, it is the result of IFW budget cuts the department must make to help cure an expected $1.2 billion state deficit, he said.

Rep. Linda Rogers McKee (D-Wayne), House chair of the legislative Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, is concerned about Mammal Group leader Jakubas, whose report disclosed the inhumane deaths of coyotes by wire neck snares. "I’ve been aware for some time there is a difference of opinion on snaring within [IFW]," she said.

Jakubas’ name now "connotes a voice of dissenting opinion on the appropriateness of using snares to kill coyotes," said McKee, who is sponsoring a bill to end funding to IFW’s coyote control program. "The public makes a connection between his opinion on snaring and his [proposed] demotion. It’s easy to see how the public could perceive" that he is being targeted, she said.

The budget cuts also would remove Jakubas’ immediate supervisor, George Matula, from his position as leader of IFW’s Wildlife Resource Assessment Section and move him to a lesser-paying biologist’s position in charge of the non-game program. Animal Damage Control chief Henry Hilton would be transferred because his office would be eliminated -- taking with it the contentious coyote snaring program. Hilton’s new role would be to assist in administration of some wildlife administrative functions formerly handled by Jakubas and Matula. Hilton has been involved in the snaring debate, but Matula has not been, at least publicly.

The job of Chuck Hulsey, the Region D wildlife biologist in Strong who has written several internal memos critical of IFW’s snaring policy, is unaffected by the proposed budget reductions so far. None of the regional wildlife offices are planned to be closed. However, that could change if the deficit worsens.

Skip Trask, speaking for the Maine Trappers Association (MTA), said that his organization "is not involved in any way" in the job changes, specifically Jakubas’. "We don’t have a vendetta against anyone," he said.

The necropsy study uncovered the fact that one-third of the animals had suffered slow, agonizing deaths.

Yet the MTA has singled out Jakubas repeatedly for more than a year in connection with the coyote necropsy report, consequently stirring up members. The necropsy study involved the examination and tissue collection of 100 dead carcasses to collect genetic information about the nature of the Maine coyotes. It also uncovered the fact that one-third of the animals had suffered slow, agonizing deaths because the wire neck loops had not tightened sufficiently. Their "jellyhead" condition resulted from hemorrhaging in the brain. The study also found that another one-third of the animals had been clubbed or shot, indicating they had not died by the time the trappers checked their snares (required every three days, or, with an IFW waiver, every seven days).

Jakubas’ data was leaked to the news media, resulting in a firestorm of protest against snaring from activists. Trask wrote in the January, 2003, MTA newsletter that "most of the growing support that the protectionists and animal rightists have been able to generate is a direct result of the badly flawed study of snared coyote carcasses that was conducted by Mammal Group leader Walter Jakubas." The current MTA website names Jakubas eight times in connection with information Trask called "worthless" and aimed at discrediting snaring.

On Feb. 25, several hundred people turned out for an emotional public hearing on bills that would eliminate coyote snaring. Trask focused again on the necropsy study, carried out, he said, by "a Department biologist, apparently acting on his own." Without naming Jakubas per se, he again asserted that the study gave a "huge boost" to animal activists who, Trask claimed, want to ban all trapping in Maine, not just snaring.

At the same hearing, George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), named Henry Hilton as among those snaring opponents within IFW who "have sabotaged the program." SAM has targeted Hilton by name for years in its communications and interviews with reporters. SAM and MTA have also identified Chuck Hulsey as part of the anti-snaring contingent.

In the March editon of Northwoods Sporting Journal, editor Paul Reynolds added to the attack against Jakubas, charging that "this whole [snaring] controversy was sparked by the indiscretion and bad judgment of an individual state wildlife biologist. This raises serious questions about departmental accountability and chain of command [at IFW]," said Reynolds, a former IFW staffer.

Name smearing

Despite the denunciations of Jakubas and other staff, IFW’s top officials have not taken the initiative to defend them in public. Yet when asked about the targeting of Jakubas, Ken Elowe said firmly that "the smearing of his name is completely inappropriate and damaging to [IFW and MTA’s] relationship." A "diversity of opinion" among his staff would never cause him to retaliate against an employee, declared Elowe.

In fact, people with differing opinions strengthen the department, he said. "If we all thought the same way, we would be parochial." Elowe added that the state’s collective bargaining contract would prevent an employee in Jakubas’ situation from being punished by demotion.

IFW regional biologists questioned the coyote snaring program because of the risk to non-target wildlife, especially the Canada lynx and bald eagle.

Jakubas declined to be interviewed about his demotion and the possible link with his role in the snaring debate. Chuck Hulsey also declined to comment "because I know the department wants one voice on the [snaring] issue." In a Sept. 30, 2002, memo, he had said his position on snaring had changed over the years from "a position of modest support to non-support." Furthermore, Hulsey wrote, "for all practical purposes, the decision of ‘should, when, where and how’ coyotes are snared has been the privileged domain of a few legislators, upper-level administrators, two hunting/trapping advocacy groups and coyote snarers themselves."

Colleagues of Jakubas in and out of IFW are concerned about the treatment of staff biologists over snaring, but they too are reluctant to be quoted. However, they expressed worry about the message that Jakubas’ situation may send to biologists whose responsibility it is, they believe, to seek the truth, even if it conflicts with official policy or politics. Jakubas could have easily kept quiet about finding "jellyheads" among the dead coyotes and avoided infuriating his superiors and powerful special interests. Some biologists believe he was courageous to report the injuries to coyotes.

Prior to the necropsy controversy, some IFW regional biologists questioned the coyote snaring program because of the risk to non-target wildlife, especially the Canada lynx and bald eagle, both on the "threatened" list under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). They recommended that snaring be banned in the IFW-designated lynx study area in the Musquacook lakes region.

By the fall of 2002, the debate over snaring had reached such a height that members of the lynx study team were not allowed by then-commissioner Lee Perry to comment on the revised snaring guidelines for the winter of 2002-2003. (Those guidelines allowed snaring to occur in the lynx study area under certain conditions and removed the limit on the number of snares that could be set.) IFW maintained that the guidelines translated into taking "reasonable care" to protect lynx, eagles and other non-target wildlife.

As is custom, the department solicited responses from regional biologists to the proposed changes in the snaring guidelines. An examination of the responses over several years shows a slacking of disagreeable comments from biologists – except from Chuck Hulsey. Some observers say that behind the scenes, biologists have been pressured into silence because the snaring issue is too politically volatile. "Punishment can be done subtly," said one biologist who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

At the recent legislative public hearing, IFW biologists were not allowed to address the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, which heard the two snaring bills. Commissioner Perry presented the department’s official position against the bills. He said wildlife biologists could attend the committee’s work session on the bills if necessary. "The committee should hear from those biologists for the committee to make a good decision," commented Rep. McKee after the hearing. "I don’t think you have to be afraid of the truth."

The Wildlife Society of Maine, the organization of wildlife professionals, attended the hearing to present its recently passed resolution on coyote snaring. The society’s position mirrors that of IFW biologists who have advocated an end to the coyote snaring program because of its ineffectiveness.

Because of its threat to non-target wildlife, snaring to remove coyotes is not "sound wildlife management," the resolution said. MTA holds that snaring coyotes protects deer herds in northern and eastern Maine where the game animal’s numbers are low. But the wildlife society said that snaring has not demonstrated effectiveness in increasing deer numbers in places where they are below management-objective levels; and the program cost is "ineffective and thus inappropriate for IFW to continue. The best way to increase the deer herd where it is below objective levels may be to increase the quantity, size and quality of deer wintering areas," the resolution said.

A Sore Spot

Ken Elowe said that the MTA’s attack on Jakubas "is a sore spot with me." Last spring, IFW officials, among them, Elowe, sat down with Skip Trask and others from the association to discuss the necropsy report and Jakubas. Both sides left with the understanding that Trask and MTA would no longer be singling out Jakubas.

Trask said in his January newsletter that he told commissioner Perry that "I’d said what I had to say and didn’t plan to bring [up the necropsy study] again unless Mr. Jakubas or others, continued to use the worthless information to try to discredit trapping and/or outlaw snaring."

Trask defended his continued criticism of Jakubas. He explained that the necropsy study had been "defended in two major newspapers and in publications distributed by two national protectionist organizations. Some of the quotes attributed to Mr. Jakubas, if accurate, leave little doubt about his position on snaring," said Trask.

Trask was particularly upset by the anti-snaring article in Audubon magazine last summer in which Jakubas’ necropsy report was highlighted, and Chuck Hulsey was quoted calling "coyote snaring is a mean-spirited government program . . .." More recently PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) waded into the snaring dispute. In its fall, 2002, newsletter, the Washington-based group said that MTA feared "a public relations nightmare" over the necropsy findings and devised "a sinister scheme" to allege that Jakubas tricked snare trappers to participate in the study.

MTA holds that snaring coyotes protects deer herds in northern and eastern Maine where the game animal’s numbers are low.

PEER alleged that "the [IFW] agency caved to the pressure" and that at a March, 2002, meeting with trappers, commissioner Perry called the snaring study ‘really dumb’ and promised to prevent any further examination of trapping practices." (Elowe was at that meeting and didn’t recall such a statement and later when he asked Perry to reiterated what he said, "I got no response from him.")

Trask told Maine Environmental News that his writings and comments about the necropsy study and Jakubas have been done in response to the "misinformation and innuendo" in articles detrimental to snaring. "Perhaps one of the reasons Wally’s name was used is that it was something that went on without a lot of department oversight. Wally decided to do [the necropsy study] on his own," Trask claimed. "I was not interested in the department taking the heat . . . for what individuals do."

Jakubas answered questions about the intent of his genetic study in a four-page summary of the research presented at a regional biologists’ meeting. He said he stumbled on the "jellyhead" information that caused such a stir, and then felt that he was bound by professional ethics to report the data.

The aim of the study begun in December, 2000, was to investigate the genetic makeup of Maine coyotes (for instance, were they a coyote/wolf hybrid) and their geographic origins. Certified snarers were paid $15 for each coyote they turned in, regardless of physical condition. Jakubas said that IFW paid snarers "above market price" to decrease any incentive to selectively keep coyotes and sell them to other buyers.

Jakubas and the two other principal investigators – then-IFW biologist Craig McLaughlin and Paul Wilson of Trent University -- chose snaring as the main method of collecting carcasses, rather than foothold traps, because they thought coyotes were less likely to learn over time how to avoid snares, and they wanted animals of all ages.

The dead coyotes were taken to the Bangor office for storage and examination. Tissue samples were taken, each animal was photographed and measured, skulls were removed, and pelts were taken to compare characteristics, according to the necropsy report. A top wildlife student at the University of Maine carried out the measurements – not Jakubas. The student was instructed to differentiate between fractures or wounds that occurred before or after an animal died.

"As coyotes were brought to . . . the Bangor office, it quickly became apparent that a number of them had swollen heads," from brain swelling, Jakubas’ said, who shared the information with Elowe and Matula by February, 2001, halfway through the study. The snarers were not told immediately that injuries were being recorded because the coyote collections "were well underway before the decision was made to record injuries from snaring," he said in his report to supervisors. He felt that if he told snarers of the edema findings and they stopped bringing in carcasses, it could have "compromised the entire genetic study" and there wouldn’t have been money to pay for a second effort.

In the spring of 2001, the majority of snarers were contacted by phone to obtain more information on juries as a way to see if there was "a pattern between injuries and snaring techniques," Jakubas said. "None of the snarers [contacted] voiced objection to these data being collected at that time and all were supportive of trying to improve snaring techniques."

Jakubas knew the information would be sensitive and bring negative publicity to snaring. A decision was made within IFW, he said in the summary report, to keep the data confidential and work with snarers "to improve techniques first before considering formal presentation of the data to the scientific community." But in November, 2001, the information about the slow, painful deaths of coyotes in snares was leaked to the news media, provoking a public outcry.

In hindsight, Jakubas said that he could have done things differently "to lessen the turmoil surrounding the collection" of snaring data. Talking with MTA about the prevalence of snaring injuries to coyotes "may have helped," he wrote in his research summary. "However, in fairness, I would have had to release this information to the general public as well."

Irony of the cuts

Snaring opponents prepared legislation last fall to end all wildlife snaring or at least coyote snaring. Armed with information about the incidental killing of non-target wildlife by snares, the NoSnare Task Force threatened to sue IFW for violating the endangered species law.

At the same time, the state’s budget problems were becoming grimmer, and by January, 2003, the new Baldacci administration ordered IFW to reduce its spending request for the next biennium. The department proposed to slash spending by $5.3 million. To do that would require laying off up to 26 employees, cut $3.3 million in programs and 42 staff positions and raise $2 million through a license fee hike.

The impact of the cuts, IFW said, would be to let go small mammal management efforts – including the $67,000-plus coyote snaring program – and concentrate the remaining money and staff resources on wildlife that generates the greatest income – bear, moose, deer and game birds.

The Bangor office is headquarters for the game division. Matula currently supervises the mammal, bird, habitat and endangered and threatened programs. Jakubas is not only in charge of the mammal program but is also the fur bearer biologist. It is planned for Matula to take over the vacant position in the non-game program that deals with threatened and endangered species. Jakubas would take the bear biologist position vacated by bear and lynx expert Craig McLaughlin, who relocated last year to Utah’s fish and wildlife agency. Jakubas, a biologist 2, would become a biologist 1 and lose $2,500 to $3,000 a year in salary. Matula, a biologist 3, would become a biologist 2, also with a salary reduction.

The irony of the budget strategy was not lost on the biologists because the cuts would decimate the research on the game animals that IFW officials say are the top priority now. Also, in the opinion of more than one biologist, the administration of the remaining programmatic functions in the wildlife division would be a potential "nightmare."

"I’ve been telling everyone who asks that [the cuts are] not a targeting," Elowe said. "But I expect that as long as the snaring issue is alive in the legislature, the MTA will use the necropsy study as a scapegoat. It is not appropriate and is disappointing to me," he said. IFW and MTA representatives will meet at the end of March to discuss how their working relationship and the need to stop "picking on personalities," Elowe said.

Elowe is crossing his fingers that the governor and legislature will find some extra money for IFW so that the proposed "organizational changes" won’t have to be made.

If the budget cuts do occur as planned, the demotions wouldn’t go into effect until June.

Meanwhile, the legislative inland fisheries and wildlife committee is planning a work session on the two snaring bills on March 13. Rep. Tom Bull (D-Freeport) introduced the bill that would ban all snaring in Maine, which includes coyotes and beaver. The other bill, introduced by Rep. McKee, would end funding for the coyote snaring program. However, the McKee proposal would still leave the legal framework for a program intact in case funding materialized in the future.

Opponents of the bills are in a full court press to influence the committee to vote unanimously against both proposals, thus blocking a debate on the floor of the legislature. On the other side, anti-snaring proponents are trying to convince committee members that if they can’t support an end to snaring, let the full legislature decide the matter.

Go to archive of Phyllis Austin Reports for Maine Environmental News (www.meepi.org).