Still No Coyote Control
By Bob Noonan

The general fur trapping season (with the exception of beaver) ends on December 31 each year. That includes for coyotes, too, which seems odd, because it's legal to shoot coyotes all year, and the coyote night hunting season starts January 1.

Allowing trappers to target coyotes from January through March would help stop deer predation.

Coyotes eat small prey like rodents and insects, and fruit like raspberries, blueberries, and apples, throughout summer and into the fall. This food is abundant and easy to get. Coyotes can run down deer on bare ground and in shallow snow, but it's a lot of work, and the success rate isn't very high. Too much energy expended for the return, especially when so much easier food is available.

That picture changes as winter approaches. A lot of the small prey and fruit has been cleaned up, so Maine coyotes shift towards red squirrels, which are abundant and active all winter, and of course varying hares, or showshoe rabbits as they're usually called. They're a main winter staple of coyotes.

But by the end of December the rabbits have been thinned out. And snow has deepened. Deep snow is as tough on coyotes as on deer. Coyotes are slowed down, but snowshoe rabbits float along on the surface. With less rabbits available and the remaining ones almost impossible to catch, coyotes have no choice but to turn to deer. In winter, in some places, deer make up 80% of their diet.

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When the snow is deep enough to concentrate deer and confine them to yards, usually around 24 inches or more, hungry coyotes get right into the yards with them. They eat healthy, pregnant does as well as the old and sick. Normally this deer yard predation starts some time in January, and keeps happening through February and into March, or until the snow melts enough to free the deer from confinement. Coyotes are normally territorial and drive others from their home range, but during starvation conditions territoriality breaks down in the presence of a concentrated food source like a deer yard, and there can be a number of family groups of four or five coyotes sharing one deer yard. And the damage they do is extensive. They can even snuff out smaller "pocket" yards of half a dozen to 30 or so deer.

The coyote snaring program was aimed at stopping exactly this type of predation. ADC trappers were deployed into and around the yards, and really put the hurt on the coyotes. Snares are an ideal winter coyote tool; they function well in bad weather because they're suspended above the snow. Trappers have been able to almost completely stop coyote predation when snaring was legal. In one winter Paul Malicky of Alton snared over 40 coyotes within a couple miles, as they attempted to enter a large deer yard. He often took out whole family groups of four or five at once.

There's plenty of evidence that the coyote snaring program caused deer numbers to rebound, but the state shut the program down in 2003, due to a threat of lawsuit from antis. Coyote numbers bounced back quickly, and deer numbers in deep snow areas once again plummeted due to predation.

There is desperate need for coyote control. Which brings us back to the trapping seasons.

For several years trappers have asked IF&W to extend the trapping season past the December 31 ending into late winter, exactly when coyote predation does the most harm. IF&W has basically responded by not responding. We've been unable to get a late coyote trapping season, even if it allows only experienced ADC trappers focused only in deer yards where predation is occurring. The only stated reason for not allowing such a season is that non-target animals might be caught. Almost all such catches can be avoided with proper trap placement and equipment, and besides there are few other animals in a deer yard besides deer and coyotes, when coyotes are present.

Since snares are not legal, trappers would have to use footholds. And footholds are difficult to keep operating in snow. In long periods of extreme cold the snow remains powdery, but when that snow is disturbed it gets hard. So covering a foothold too deeply with snow can prevent the trap from firing. Canadian and Alaskan wilderness trappers solve this problem by using larger, stronger traps, and sometimes by placing traps inside thin plastic bags before covering with snow. But Maine trappers are now limited to smaller traps due to recent law changes to protect lynx.

The real problem with Maine snow trapping is that we often get alternating periods of freezing and thawing. When the snow thaws it melts in and around the trap, then it freezes solid and the trap won't fire.

Our trappers are adaptable and ingenious, and if IF&W allowed them to use footholds past December 31, they'd figure out a way to catch coyotes with them. One New York State trapper told me he caught coyotes in footholds in deer yards by painting the traps white, placing them at the base of a tree, on top of snow he had stomped flat with snowshoes, and wiring a piece of a deer kill to the tree about two feet off the ground. He said the coyotes focused on the bait and didn't look down to see where they put their feet.

Extending the coyote trapping season to the end of February, or even to the end of March, would go a long way towards reducing coyote predation in deer yards. Maine trappers would jump at the chance to help.

Bob Noonan is a veteran trapper and outdoorsman, and has been an outdoor writer for over 20 years.


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