May 30, 2011

Chasing wily coyotes

Hunters are trying to thin the ranks of the coyote population in the hope it benefits Maine's deer.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

THORNDIKE - Five dogs, nine hunters, 12 hours: and only a half-dozen empty tanks of gas to show for it.

click image to enlarge

Mike Corson listens to baying bloodhounds in the woods of Thorndike on May 21 as he hunts coyotes with the Knox Ridge Coyote Hunters, a loose-knit club.

Photos by Gregory Rec/Staff photographer

click image to enlarge

A bloodhound sniffs from its dog box in the back of a truck during the hunt. Some dogs are held in reserve in case other dogs get tired.

This is coyote hunting in Maine, a growing activity that is considered one answer to the shrinking deer herd.

Officials at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are so concerned with decreasing deer numbers, and so sure some targeted coyote hunting helps, they're compensating coyote hunters in some areas with gas money.

The hunters in the loosely formed Knox Ridge Coyote Hunters club in Thorndike don't see those gas checks. They hunt coyotes anyway.

They focus a concentrated effort on one of the biggest deer wintering yards in the midcoast.

That means most every Saturday is spent chasing hounds with GPS collars, driving dirt roads from dawn to dusk, and often coming up empty.

"It's such a challenge to kill one," said Jason Spencer, who started the group effort seven years ago.

The desire and drive to outwit and shoot dozens of coyotes is not new. But the work of hunting coyotes hasn't gotten any easier, despite advances in GPS technology.

Former Kennebec Journal outdoor reporter Gene Letourneau in 1990 wrote about the "first generation" coyote hunters in Thorndike. Several years ago, a younger group took over.

"He's the master," said Registered Maine Guide Nelson Cole, a coyote hunter for three decades, with a nod toward Spencer.

"I first started hunting them in '73 to '74," Cole explained. "I saw tracks and didn't know what they were. Since the deer has diminished, we want to hunt them again. Coyote is not 100 percent the reason (for the loss of deer). But it's what we can do."

The coyote is one of just four species in Maine that has no closed season. That means hunters can take a coyote any time, any place, while following standard hunting laws.

But how effective coyote hunting is in helping deer survive winter remains a question.

The state estimates there are only 12,000 coyotes in Maine. But coyotes can have a litter of six to eight pups, travel huge distances, and are highly adaptable.

Spencer said in Knox Ridge hunters and trappers took 150 coyotes in the past year. At a one-square-mile farm in the area, he said 200 deer were counted this winter, which was an increase from last winter.

But does this effort help the deer herd over time?

Wally Jakubas, the state's coyote study leader, isn't sure.

"The department has always maintained that focused controlled efforts especially around deer wintering areas, if successful, helped deer in a focused effort," Jakubas said. "If you took 150 in a year, and did that repeatedly, I would think that would be enough to keep the population down. It's not an easy thing."

Jakubas said the challenge is that eastern coyotes are resilient, resourceful, and efficient.

While hound dogs track them at a run following a scent that will spread across a wide swath, the coyote moves in a straight line, trotting to conserve energy.

The work of coyote hunting, even with trained hounds, as the Knox Ridge team proved on May 21, is exhausting.

Four hours into the hunt, as two dogs grew weary and slow, Spencer sent his "Mixer dog" into the field.

Spencer got the dog from one of Cole's hunting dogs seven years ago. He trained the dog to focus on coyotes.

"I spent every day with him for a two years," Spencer said.

A huge crate in the back of a pickup truck is opened and the big dog goes wild, wound up as it is for the chase. Mixer runs directly at Spencer who yells, "road, road, road," to the dog, telling it to find the coyote scent on the trail.

(Continued on page 2)

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