January 14, 2012

Allen Afield: Deer herd in northern Maine needs more help than coyote snaring


Not long ago, an article about northern Maine's deer woes caught my eye, and according to the writer, a hard-core conservative, the federal government's listing of the Canada lynx as an endangered species is destroying our North Country whitetail herd.

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Coyote snaring could be a short-term solution toward replenishing deer in northern Maine if not for the fact that there are other factors causing harm to the deer herd.

The Associated Press

According to this guy, the listing has stopped trappers from snaring coyotes near deeryards, so these wild canines camp out around wintering whitetails and decimate them with impunity.

Viewing snaring as a savior of the overall northern Maine deer herd offers serious flaws, though, beginning with this one:

When coyote snaring was legal, deer populations up north were still plummeting, and astute observers knew that the dwindling herd wouldn't change until laws or goodwill forced landowners to stop cutting conifer stands that provided winter habitat for deeryards.

And good luck with forced laws or regs. Our political system protects landowner rights -- one integral foundation of democracy. So, incentives for property owners rather than bullwhips are crucial for them to go along with protecting winter habitat.

Deer cannot survive without dense evergreen groves for shelter from December through April, particularly in severe winters. However, in proper habitat, deer can survive coyotes and better withstand deep snow and cold.

Here's another problem:

The whitetail herd in the North Country is dangerously close to extirpation. For at least 20 years, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has claimed that the deer-population density in northern Maine averages two per square mile. Lately, that figure has dropped to one deer per square mile in places. The solution to that low density requires more management tools than snaring.

Admittedly, saying one to two deer per square mile is misleading, because whitetails in that vast region live in pockets with fairly high population figures, but no matter how someone plays with statistics, one to two deer per square mile is still one to two, despite how deer spread out.

In a nutshell, the North Country coyote problem is a symptom rather than a cause of deer woes there, woes aggravated by poor habitat and bad winters on the northern extreme of whitetail range.

Deer without proper conifer stands in winter are like humans spending an arctic winter in a roofless supermarket. Lack of shelter would doom folks, despite all the food. In northern Maine, deer with no roof are ultra-vulnerable, despite abundant forage from regenerating cuttings.

I'm not taking political sides here, either, because conservatives and liberals alike have aggravated deer problems up north.

For instance, conservatives may dwell on the need for snaring, but in 1995, environmental organizations embraced a claim that they had plucked from "A Study of Eastern Coyotes and Their Impact on White-tailed Deer in Maine," a well-researched summary written by Gerald Lavigne, an IFW deer biologist. Nearly two decades later, folks still quote this selectively chosen sentence from page 17 of the 22-page report:

"Long-term suppression of coyote populations over large areas is not biologically achievable using traditional hunting and trapping techniques."

This sentence from an IFW biologist proves that it's useless to attempt statewide coyote reduction, and folks who disapprove of killing one species to save another spout it off at every opportunity as a reason not to snare.

One page later in the coyote study, though, Lavigne wrote, "It may be feasible to intensely remove enough coyotes from small areas to temporarily reduce their impact on deer."

According to Lavigne, snaring in winter deeryards does save deer, but is it too little, too late after woodcutters have removed the roof?

If the herd were larger, snaring could be a temporary tool to save deer until wintering habitat grew back in 20 or more years, depending on the condition of each deeryard.

(Continued on page 2)

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