Coyotes not a factor in incidental take discussions

For years, the question cropped up regularly at meetings of sportsmen and sportswomen around the state, and for years, then-commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife offered similar responses.

The question: When is the state going to restart its coyote-snaring program?

And the answer: Not before the state receives an incidental take permit — which would allow for limited unintentional impacts on protected animals such as Canada lynx — from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A Canada Lynx.

After a pair of lawsuits unsuccessfully sought the end of trapping in lynx territory in recent years, and the announcement that the state was, indeed, seeking an incidental take permit from the federal agency, it seemed to some — this writer, for one — that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife was well into its planning for a revamped coyote-snaring program.

But after three joint USFWS and DIF&W information sessions held around the state this week, a couple things are much more clear.

First, the agencies seem to be cooperating well with each other, with the goal of each to eventually — before next year’s trapping season, if all goes well — issue an incidental take permit that will withstand future legal challenges.

And second: The incidental take permit that’s being discussed has absolutely nothing to do with coyote snaring, and does not include mention of the activity.

“We haven’t had any formal discussions on [an incidental take permit for snaring], said the DIF&W’s Wally Jakubas, the principal author of the department’s ITP application.

“You may have read that we have set aside some ideas to pursue an incidental take plan for snaring when we got wind that we were going to get sued for trapping,” Jakubas said. “We thought that our trapping program would be much more likely to get an incidental take permit than snaring right away. But we want to see how this goes, see where the bumps in the road were, so if we decide that we wanted to pursue an incidental take permit for snaring, we could do so.”

The key word: “If.”

As in (to paraphrase one source with a wealth of experience in the snaring issue), “If pigs fly … and not until then.”

No, this was not that incidental take permit up for discussion at forums held in Presque Isle, Orono and Portland. Instead, it was a permit that would provide an increased level of protection to law-abiding trappers across the state, should they end up with lynx in their traps.

USFWS officials describe the proposal as the first incidental take permit for the purpose of trapping that they’re aware of. Generally those permits are designed and requested to mitigate effects of development, officials said.

While the DIF&W won legal battles staged in federal court that accused it of violating the Endangered Species Act because lynx were sometimes caught and killed in traps, the judge in the case did tell the state to change trapping rules to help mitigate lynx issues in the future.

The incidental take permit now up for discussion and revision would offer a layer of protection from liability for trappers, so long as the trappers were following the set standards, even if the protected lynx were inadvertently trapped.

The DIF&W has said that a lethal take of as many as five lynx over a 15-year period, which could be the baseline established by the incidental take permit, would not limit the lynx population.

At the Orono session, Jakubas pointed out that in two years of trapping under new regulations, which were designed to make traps safer to lynx, the results have been noteworthy. In nearly 500,000 trap-days, he reported, no lynx had been reported killed. DIF&W biologist Jennifer Vashon said the department estimates between 600 and 1,200 adult lynx live in the 11 Wildlife Management Districts that make up the majority of the species’ range in the state.

And at the session, both state and federal officials — including Mark McCullough of the Maine field office of the USFWS — repeatedly reminded the 40 or so attendees that their written comments and suggestions would help inform those making the decisions, and help those officials craft the best plan possible.

One component of the permit that’s up for discussion: Creating 5,000 acres of lynx habitat on land controlled by Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

For now, a chart listing five different alternatives for the minimization and mitigation of incidentally caught lynx are up for discussion. Those alternatives range from the status quo — what’s happening right now — up through the DIF&W’s suggestions in its ITP application, and covers three increasingly more stringent federal conservation measures that could be considered.

Or, to describe the chart another way: It covers everything from doing nothing differently, up to putting in the most strict set of regulations biologists can think up. The actual permit, if it is approved, will surely fall somewhere in the middle.

Compiled in tabular form, that document shows exactly how many different topics are up for debate as the ITP process moves forward … and illustrates how important public input is.

For instance, “Mandatory reporting of lynx captures” [by trappers], is a recommended action in all five categories. That’s what happens now. And that’s what everyone seems to want in the future.

The USFWS is required to consider alternatives that some would describe as overly conservative, if only to be able to make the point later, likely in court, that discussions had included all options.

An example: As an alternative included in the column that includes the most stringent changes, there is an option up for consideration that would completely shut down upland trapping in 14 Wildlife Management Districts where lynx live.

John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.