Saturday, December 7, 2013
ROBERT F. BUKATY
The howls of coyotes have become familiar nighttime sounds across the state, even in the suburbs of southern Maine.
That's music to the ears of Geri Vistein, a Maine-based conservation biologist.
''When you hear their song, it should be a delight, because you know they're there,'' she said during a recent presentation in Falmouth.
But to some, the coyote is an uncontrolled nuisance predator that has become so widespread, it's threatening northern Maine's deer herd, as well as preying on suburban house cats.
''There's no question that coyotes are affecting fawn survival and adult deer survival,'' said Gerry Lavigne, a former state deer biologist.
The coyote is perhaps Maine's most adaptable -- and controversial -- predator. And now, because of a decline in the state's deer herd, the species is coming under more fire than ever.
Hunters are demanding that the state do more to kill coyotes, and a growing number are taking matters into their own hands.
''We have 235,000 deer hunters. If just 5 percent of them become avid coyote hunters, we'd have a huge hunting force and we'd have a substantial impact on coyote numbers,'' said Lavigne, who hunts coyotes in northern Maine and is among those urging hunters to turn their sights on the wily canines.
Coyotes are native to North America. They spread east into Maine during the 20th century after wolves, their primary natural enemy, were killed off.
Intelligent and secretive, they are more often heard than seen. Yet, unlike other predators, coyotes survive comfortably in suburban and even urban areas, including Greater Portland.
They eat mostly mice, voles and snowshoe hare, but can feed on anything from grasshoppers and berries to house cats. Vistein and other biologists say it is the cats that are the interlopers, and they shouldn't be allowed to roam at night.
To American Indians, the coyote was respected as the ''old man'' or ''God's dog,'' Vistein said. But ever since the arrival of European settlers, she said, there have been repeated -- and always unsuccessful -- efforts to kill off or drive out coyotes.
''In fact, there are more now than when Europeans came,'' said Vistein, who belongs to a nationwide network of conservation biologists called Project Coyote.
When coyotes are removed by aggressive hunting or trapping, the animals that remain have larger litters of pups to replace them. ''This animal knows how to survive tough times,'' she said.
The coyote helps keep other animal populations healthy and balanced by preying on the sick or weak, biologists said.
Vistein believes they also are helping people by offering one more opportunity to co-exist with another predator.
''Coyotes are giving us a chance to reconsider our relationship with nature,'' she said.
Deer hunters, meanwhile, have long considered coyotes a nuisance. Frustration with the ''yotes'' -- and the lack of a state control program -- is now especially high.
''The department has not been able to cobble together any predator-control program to protect deer,'' said Lavigne, who represented the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine on a state study panel last year. ''They are not going to succeed in improving the deer numbers unless we succeed in coyote control.''
The tension has been rising since the long, snowy winter of 2007-08 took a huge toll on the state's deer herd, especially in northern and eastern Maine. It ''was a catastrophic winter,'' said Lee Kantar, deer biologist for the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department.
The deep snow that winter was especially deadly because of a gradual decline in so-called deer yards, the mature stands of spruce or other evergreens that offer protection from deep snow and cold winds. The weak, exposed deer were more likely to starve or be eaten by predators, including bears and coyotes.
That winter's death toll led to a disappointing fall for hunters and for Maine's hunting industry.
About 21,000 deer were killed by hunters in Maine last fall, a 27 percent decrease in the harvest from 2007 and the smallest number since the beginning of the any-deer permit system in 1986, according to preliminary state data. And it is expected to take the herd years to recover from that one winter.
Protecting and restoring deer yards is critical, but so is controlling predators around those areas, Lavigne said.
Black bears are known to eat as many deer fawns as coyotes, and maybe more. But bears support a valuable hunting industry of their own in Maine, so any predator-control effort falls on coyotes. ''That's the political reality of it,'' Lavigne said.
Lavigne and others are formally trying to create a coyote hunting network to turn the predators into Maine's newest game species. There already are Web sites where hunters post photos of dead coyotes that they shot from long distances, often under moonlight.
The state allows year-round, unlimited hunting of coyotes during daylight hours, and night coyote hunting from Dec. 20 to June 1.
''Nobody's looking to eliminate coyotes. We're trying to hold their numbers down to where they prey on snowshoe hare and not whitetail deer,'' said Lavigne, who hunts coyotes around a deer yard near his home in northern Maine.
Coyote numbers need to be managed just as deer numbers are managed, he said.
It's not known, however, whether killing coyotes will ever help Maine's deer.
Some studies suggest that 70 percent or more of the coyotes in a given region would have to be killed every year to decrease their numbers enough to make a difference. Lavigne and others say more recent research shows that killing coyotes in certain areas at certain times of the year -- such as when fawns are born in spring -- could make a difference.
''There are a lot of naysayers that say it can't be done. But, quite frankly, nobody has tested it, and I'd like to see it get a test,'' Lavigne said.
Vistein, the conservation biologist, said she hopes Mainers eventually learn how to live with coyotes, whether that means enjoying their howls or keeping house cats inside at night.
But she isn't worried as much about whether the ''song dog'' is here to stay.
''They are the ultimate survivors,'' she said.
Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: