Snaring Controversy Rooted In Politics
By Bob Noonan

After reading the recent article on coyote snaring by Phyllis Austin in the MaineTimes I felt compelled to respond..

The article deals with a number of issues around the coyote snaring program of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIF&W).

Primarily, however, it discusses the "inhumane" nature of snares. The MDIF&W's recent necropsy of snared coyotes revealed that some coyotes were not killed quickly, and there was some swelling of the neck and head. Snares were therefore declared inhumane. Of course the press has been quick to sensationalize this conclusion, with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) leading the pack. The HSUS is basically an animal rights organization that considers all trapping, hunting, and fishing inhumane, and admits to working for end all these activities.

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Admittedly, there is a problem - with some types of snares. But there are other types that are extremely humane, capable of killing coyotes so fast that they barely disturb the surroundings. Snares, when used properly, are accepted as very humane across the United States and Canada.

The main difficulty with the snares used on these Maine coyotes is that they had "stops" on them, devices that keep the snares from closing to a diameter less than 2 to 3 inches. The purpose of the stops is supposedly to allow eagles and deer snared accidentally to pull out of the open loop.

But because the stops keep the snares from closing completely, many coyotes are not killed quickly. It is the stops that are inhumane, not the snares themselves.

Trappers have known of this problem since early in the snaring program, and have tried repeatedly to correct it. Bill Mackowski of Milford has been actively involved in the snaring program since its inception, and has been rewriting policy and pushing for reform since the beginning. According to Mackowski, theMDIF&W has been repeatedly advised that the stops were a problem. Yet the Department has chosen to do nothing about it, leaving the decision to mandate stops up to the discretion of biologists, most of whom have no snaring experience. So the use of these devices continued, and trappers were repeatedly told in training seminars that they had to use them.

Ironically, the stops are not really needed to protect either eagles or deer.

The two eagles caught in the 1980s, in the first experimental years of the snaring program, were caught because of a basic misunderstanding of eagle behavior. Bait was placed in heavy brush to attract coyotes, and snares were set on approach trails to the bait. Eagles are carrion eaters, and quickly spotted the bait. But the big birds need an open area to land, so they landed in nearby clearings and walked in to the bait, and hit the snares on the way in. No one realized just how far an eagle would walk to food. One walked 50 yards through thick brush to get to the bait.

This problem was immediately corrected by placing bait out in open areas, and setting the snares in trails back in the brush. The eagles landed right on the bait and never entered the brush. It is now mandated in the snaring policy that bait be placed in an open area, to allow the birds to land and leave without walking. Trappers are taught this in training seminars.

How effective has this been? Since those first two eagles, there has never been another one snared. Not one. There should be no concern about eliminating the stops because that might increase danger to eagles. Snares are simply not a danger to eagles.

What about deer?

Other states and provinces that allow snares have solved the problem without stops, by using breakaway devices on the snare locks. These are designed to break open and release the animal when enough force is applied. These devises have been refined and tested until they are very consistent. The accepted norm is a breakaway device that lets go at between 175 to 230 pounds of pressure. This easily releases deer, but holds coyotes.

A trained trapper will avoid catching deer in the first place, by avoiding deer trails. Occasionally a deer will encounter a snare, but due to the snare's height the animal usually hits the snare with its chest, pushing it aside. Infrequently, a deer will poke a leg through and get caught. In this case the breakaway device quickly releases it.

However deer do die quickly when neck caught, even with a breakaway device. Fortunately, deer rarely get caught by the neck. There is one exception to this. If a snare is set under brush or a pole or log, deer will crawl under and get neck caught. Anyone tracking deer on snow has seen where they've gone under some amazingly low stuff, rather than go over or around. Experienced trappers prevent neck catches by making sure the snare is set in a more open area in the trail, supported by a wire that is easily pushed aside by the deer.

Ironically, some snare instructors have actually taught that the proper way to avoid deer is to place a horizontal pole over the snare. This practically guarantees a neck catch. Experienced trappers have protested this technique continually, to no avail. When Mackowski discovered that a certain instructor was teaching trappers to do this, he complained repeatedly to the Department and to others in the snaring program. But possibly because the instructor was a retired MDIF&W person, the Department made no effort to correct him, and he continued to teach a snaring method that was almost guaranteed to produce neck catches on deer.

Mackowski believes firmly that the MDIF&W's refusal to correct snaring procedures, despite constant requests from experienced trappers, has made the present problems inevitable.

Another problem with snares is the use of antiquated snare locks such as the old washer lock, and so-called "relaxing" locks. These locks exert little or no pressure against the animal's neck unless the animal is pulling against the snare. These locks prevent quick kills, and often produce swelling in the head and neck.

Again, experienced trappers have complained to the IFW about these locks, but Department has never seen fit to forbid them, or require the use of fast-killing locks.

Modern locks such as the cam-lock and others kill very rapidly because they lock tight and do not relax.

A recent improvement on the cam-lock, the Amberg lock, has an inch-long spring on the end that maintains pressure against the coyote's neck even when the animal isn't pulling. The pressure is enough to cut off both air to the lungs and blood to the brain, and the animal passes out almost immediately, with little or no choking. The Amberg kills so rapidly that coyotes hardly fight it; they just seem to roll over and die. Trappers commonly find the snare site barely disturbed, if at all. Government tests have shown the Amberg to be the fastest-killing lock commercially available, killing in minutes or less. As trappers discover its efficiency and humaneness, it is rapidly becoming the most popular snare lock on the continent.

Another very fast-killing snare system is called the Ram. Invented by Canadian Bruce "Bert" Bertram, this system uses a two-armed spring about as long as a man's forearm. The spring closes the snare noose when the coyote triggers it, and holds it tightly enough against the animal's neck to shut off both blood flow and air, like the Amberg. No lock is needed since the spring holds the loop closed. In different sizes the Ram is used successfully on animals ranging in size from mink to wolf and even black bear. The Ram system kills slightly faster than the Amberg and is extremely popular in Canada, and is catching on in America. However the spring is expensive, and less portable than conventional snares.

In short, there are some excellent snares available that kill extremely quickly, with no suffering or swelling.

The problems with the Maine snaring program have been created by how it has been administrated, not by the snares themselves.

Another complaint against snares is that they are non-selective, and will catch any animal that comes along.

Any experienced trapper will tell you that non-target catches can be almost completely avoided by proper selection of the set location, and snare loop size and positioning.

Fisher, for example, are not caught in snares because they hunt the thick brush and don't run the trails that coyotes use. Bobcats, lynx, and fox can be almost completely avoided by keeping the bottom of the snare loop high, from 14 to 16 inches off the snow. These animals go under the loop, where the long legged coyotes poke their heads through.

As for the threat to lynx, I feel this is deliberately exaggerated. Since the snaring program began, only one incidental lynx has been caught, and that was 11 years ago.

Which brings up the question of whether or not the lynx is actually endangered. When animal rights activists and conservationists first tried to place the lynx on the endangered species list, wildlife biologists across America protested, pointing out that there have never been high lynx populations in America anyway, because the northern states were at the extreme southern end of the lynx's natural range. Although lynx are extremely abundant in their natural habitat in Canada and Alaska, there have never been many in America. Maine, for example, has never had more than a few lynx. And there never will be many, no matter how much we "protect" them.

Federal listing of the lynx as an endangered species was accomplished by political pressure, and it enabled activists to immediately close large areas to recreational use, to "protect" an animal that never existed in high numbers there to begin with.

The lynx is still a potent political tool. Witness the recent discovery, widely publicized, that seven state and federal biologists were found to have planted hairs from domesticated lynx in national forests in Washington State, in an attempt to create evidence that a small resident wild population existed. The biologists were hoping to create another spotted owl, so they could close the area to commercial and recreational use, to "protect" a lynx population that didn't even exist.

The Maine lynx population is under no threat from snares. An accidental catch every 11 years or more will not hurt a population that has always been sparse and scattered.

Another erroneous objection to the snaring program is that it doesn't really help deer that much, because it's necessary to remove 70% of the coyote population to control numbers.

Statewide control of coyote numbers is admittedly impossible. But anti-snaring proponents deliberately ignore the fact, proven over and over and over again nationwide, that concentrated, pinpoint coyote control by trained trappers is extremely effective in reducing coyote predation on wildlife and livestock in specific areas. Snaring by predator control agents in western states has been recorded as reducing coyote predation on sheep from 25% to less than 2%, and the positive effects on deer and antelope numbers are overwhelmingly obvious.

In 1986, Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula had a healthy deer herd of around 15,000 animals. A series of hard winters, combined with deforestation and increasing coyote numbers, decimated the deer herd. By 1992, helicopter surveys were able to locate only about 500 deer. A coyote snaring program was initiated, and in three years 80 trained trappers took 1,500 coyotes from key deer areas. As of 1999, the deer herd was over 2,000. It is still growing, as a result of focused coyote control. Coyote numbers have been kept down by a concentrated, consistent snaring program.

Coyotes don't hurt deer populations when deer are plentiful. But it has been absolutely proven that if deer numbers have been badly reduced by severe winters or other factors, coyote predation is a key factor in keeping the deer herd from recovering. That's why coyote control is so important in areas like northern Maine, where deer populations are extremely low and struggling to regain their former numbers.

What about giving the coyote big game status, and depending on sports hunters to control numbers? Sports hunting has little effect on overall coyote populations. The only effective control is a snaring program, operated by trained trappers, focused on specific problem areas.

Snaring has been legalized in many states, and more states allow it every year, as they discover it is an effective, humane coyote control method, safe to pets and other wildlife. Consider heavily populated Ohio, which legalized general, statewide snaring of coyotes over five years ago. Since the program started, there has not been one single complaint involving the death of a pet or domestic animal in snares. And complaints of coyote predation on livestock have decreased noticeably.

Snaring, done properly, is a very humane and efficient way to control coyotes, with a positive benefit to the deer herd.

Politics have created the problems blamed on snares.

Bob Noonan has interviewed numerous trappers, predator control agents, and wildlife biologists on the topic of coyote control and snaring.

Coyote Snares Humane?

Editor's note: What follows are selected excerpts from a story written by Phyllis Austin and published in The Maine Times:

Death or shot. "This validates our long-held notion that snaring is an extreme- ly cruel and inhumane method," said Wayne Pacelle, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States in Washington. "They languished in snares for hours and days." Animal rights activist Cheri Mason of Sunset predicted the report will renew efforts to "end this completely wasteful and cruel activity." The data has stirred intense debate among IFW biologists and staff over suffering and killing, cost and the realistic impact of coyotes on the deer herd. The controversy is raising questions not only over management and politics at IFW but also at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act. Agency opponents of snaring believe that good science is being sacrificed because of pressures brought by northern Maine snarers, the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, the Maine Trappers Association and the Legislature. Henry Hilton, IFW's animal control officer, said the agency has been "cowed" by snaring advocates into supporting the activity.

The necropsy report was ordered by IFW's Mammal Group leader Wally Jakubas after he noticed a number of coyotes with swelling in the head and other injuries. "It got my curiosity up," he said. Snarers were asked to turn in the bodies of coyotes for study. "I explicitly said I wanted all animals so we could have a complete survey," he said. A University of Maine student examined the carcasses for Jakubas, skinning the animals and taking their skulls off. The data came from coyotes snared in 19 towns and townships. "Bad snaring and edema [swelling] became evident," Jakubas said. And the data was collected from certified snarers - "supposedly the best guys out there, not the slob guys," he said. Certification means the snarer has proven to IFW that he can competently kill a coyote. The report described the condition of the dead coyotes in grisly detail: head swollen; head swollen possibly shot on right side of body; neck swollen. Of the total animals snared, "normal" and other injuries accounted for 36 coyotes, or 38.3 percent. Jakubas explained that the snare is supposed to humanely kill the trapped animals by suffocation within three to five minutes, with the coyote becoming unconscious sooner. But the "stops" prevent the snare from totally closing. "It's not enough to asphyxiate, but it does cause constriction in the throat," he said. "It restricts blood going through the jugular vein. But the carotid artery keeps pumping blood in the head, with nowhere to go," he said. "The capillaries burst" - spreading jelly-like blood clots.

Consistent throughout the draft of the proposed legislation is language aimed at pleasing the snaring community and its lobbyists. The recommendations acknowledge that the snaring policy has been inconsistently applied region by region and directs all personnel to be familiar with policy and relay that information uniformly. "The department will facilitate and encourage coyote snaring among the public, to be carried out by volunteer and paid individuals without reluctance by any department personnel," the recommendations said. "All individuals who wish to set snares and take coyotes during the winter months will be given the opportunity to snare coyotes within the procedures in the snaring policy." Biologists' opposition to allowing snaring to expand in December and March is based on the movement of deer into wintering areas that may make them more vulnerable to being snared at the onset of winter, and the lynx's travel patterns in spring to find a mate. Only fully certified snarers would be allowed to operate in March "to ensure the highest level of protection for non-target species," the report recommended.

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