For over a decade, conservationists in Maine have anxiously referenced low deer populations in the northern parts of the state. According to local hunters, the troubled deer herd appears to be on a slow, but gradual rebound in the north woods.
One of the major topics on the docket for a recent “deer survival forum” at the University of Maine in Presque Isle included discussion of ongoing predator management actions in the area. The forum included citizens in the hunting community, policymakers from Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (MDIF&W), and representatives from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM). Discussions also included other important factors, such as habitat management and improving food sources for deer.
While coyotes are known to prey on deer year-round, professionals assert deer that are holed up in wintering areas are at their most vulnerable for coyote predation, and winter mortality is a primary concern for the continued sustainability of the overall deer population.
While it’s well understood that coyote control efforts won’t necessarily “guarantee” survival of all wintering deer, the state’s rich hunting community is confident that relieving pressure during this vulnerable time of year gives a strained population a better fighting chance.
Professionals in Maine note that coyote management is only successful if applied consistently year after year over an extended period. Wildlife Management professionals across the country have echoed similar sentiments - noting that continued hunting pressure on coyotes in local areas, rather than an ineffective “eradication” mindset, can bolster diversity for the region’s indigenous flora and fauna.
Ten years ago, Maine’s Fish and Wildlife Department launched a coyote control program mandated by the state’s legislature. During that 10-year period, over 2,000 coyotes were reportedly taken throughout the weakened deer area. Today, the results, according to local hunters, are having a beneficial impact on prey species such as deer.
The Aroostook County Conservation Association (ACCA) has also implemented a ten year attempt at strengthening deer populations in the area, which included habitat improvement and the implementation of a coyote hunting contest.
Combined coyote-control efforts from the ACCA, as well as the Penobscot County Wildlife Conservation Association, and Maine Fish & Wildlife’s program, have resulted in over 4,000 coyotes taken throughout the areas of concern.
While locals concede the deer situation has “improved some” in the area, they also note there’s still more work to be done. Maine’s grueling winters coupled with continued depredation make for a progressive, but slow recovery of local deer numbers.
The news comes as deer populations seem to flourish in other parts of the Northeast, with high harvest numbers reported in neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont in 2018; and embattled population swells making headlines in New York’s Staten Island.
Integrated Coyote Control
According to a 2011 release from Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), deer hunting attracts more than 150,000 participants annually. Those participants support a hunting-based economy worth more than $200 million throughout the state.
In 2011, SAM rolled out their Integrated Coyote Control plan that included input from MDIF&W, and implemented a working partnership with local hunters and trappers, as well as paid (and volunteer) Animal Damage Control (ADC) agents.
Coyotes would be taken using permitted foothold traps set by licensed trappers, or by various hunting methods such as baiting, calling, hounds, or coyote-specific hunts.
According to SAM’s plan, the coyote control initiative would be “biologically based”, working closely with state wildlife professionals.
To Manage or “not” Manage
The news on Maine’s predator control plan comes at a time when North America is embattled with conservation division on the ecological role of coyotes - and more importantly, how the species should be managed.
Today, debates about the effectiveness of coyote hunting, and the polarizing topic of predator hunting contests wage on in Fish & Wildlife offices and Legislative Halls from coast to coast.
Outfitters like Smith’s General Store, which is regionally located where weakened deer populations in the Maine north woods are based, continues to promote coyote hunting contests as what owner Aaron Smith contends is a “common-sense” benefit to leveling the playing field for native prey species.
According to reports, Smith’s has been tagging coyotes since 2008. The contest is held from December to April. As of 2017, the store had tagged 880 coyotes since the local hunting contest’s inception.
“Growth in our deer tagging here at Smith’s General Store from 2009 to 2016 has more than doubled! During deer seasons, when there was a tracking snow, the deer tagging numbers tripled!” Smith told V Paul Reynolds during a 2017 column.
Maine’s hunting community is convinced that the numbers don’t lie. Whether anecdotal or not, it would appear the efforts in Maine are showcasing that coyote removal is benefiting prey species.
Reynolds’ 2017 column also notes input from wildlife specialist Jim Schmidt, who has spent considerable time living remotely with coyotes for almost a year while collecting biological samples for scientific research. Schmidt has gathered quite an intimate knowledge-base on these adaptable predators while working as a coyote damage control specialist throughout the country.
“The coyote is an opportunist, a smart, resourceful animal who can live and survive just about anywhere — the mountains of Arizona to the back alleys of Chicago,” Schmidt told Reynolds.
Schmidt eludes that he disagrees strongly with the parameters of the “responsive reproduction” theory on coyotes (which essentially suggests coyotes can’t be managed or controlled, and will compensate through additional breeding if individuals in a family unit are removed from the local social order).
He does suggest, however, that the eradication of coyotes isn’t feasible - and I’d have to fully agree.
As I’ve pointed out numerous times in the Furbearer Conservation blog - while eradication isn’t feasible, and (in my opinion) shouldn’t be a part of conservation endeavors, this does not mean that the Eastern Coyote (Canis Latrans var) is above the tenants of ethical wildlife management. Regulated hunting and trapping of such an adaptable predator is key to promoting healthy wildlife biodiversity - especially with regard to endangered or threatened species. What with a rise in international interest in the animal’s pelt, there’s little reason why regulated management shouldn’t be promoted throughout the winter months - when coyote fur is dense and primed, and hunting takes place outside the birthing season.
If trends continue, the events taking place in the crown of Maine may make for an interesting future case study. I, for one, will be watching the effects in Maine closely for the foreseeable future.