The New Tyranny:
Should Social Issues
Drive Fish & Wildlife Decisions?

By V. Paul Reynolds

By state law and historical precedent, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIF&W) has one all-important overarching mission: to manage the wildlife and fisheries of this state in a way that protects these natural resouces. It accomplishes this mission by hiring professional wildlife and fisheries biologists who function under the direction of the

DIF&W Commissioner and his departmental managers. Over the years this system, although it is not perfect, has performed well. Of late, though, a new tyranny is clamping its tentacles around the time-tested mechanism that has produced some of the most plentiful stocks of game fish and wildlife in North American history. It is the threat of litigation. The key word here is threat. That's right. In increasingly more instances the mere threat to go to court has been used by assorted special interest groups to scare or intimidate Augusta policymakers into not moving ahead with projects or policies that they otherwise would.

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The most glaring example is the DIF&W's winter coyote snaring program. For years, this program has helped control excessive coyote predation on Maine's already hard-pressed wintering whitetails. The coyote snaring program was suspended by DIF&W Commissioner Danny Martin last year when a special interest lobby, the NO Snare Task Force threatened to take DIF&W to court. In order to avoid litigation the state has applied for an "incidental take permit" from the Feds. The application for this permit is still languishing. The result is that for the second winter in a row there will be no coyote snaring program in deer yards. Commissioner Martin is talking tough. He reportedly told the Princeton Fish and Game Club that the Department had not given up on coyote snaring and would continue to pursue it through proper channels. Good intentions notwithstanding, the reality is that No Snare's threat to litigate accomplished its aim. Commissioner Martin may be having second thoughts about his earlier decision to capitulate to the scare tactics used by the NO Snare activists.

Similar scenarios are playing out with regard to the sport fisheries at Branch Lake in Ellsworth and Phillips Lake in Dedham.

For a number of years now it has been illegal for the state to maintain its fish stocking program at Branch Lake. Currently there is no adequate public boat launch at Branch Lake. The reason is that Ellsworth municipal officials and the Branch Lake Campowners Assn. threatened to sue the state Department of Conservation (DOC) if it completed construction of a public boat launch facility on the lake. At first, DOC indicated that it would forge ahead anyway but, alas, the agency has decided it isn't worth the battle. So Branch Lake's once estimable sport fishery continues its decline. Chalk up another victory up for the New Tyranny: the threat of litigation.

Meanwhile, at Phillips Lake in Dedham an attempt by state fisheries biologists to get a handle on that lake's runaway juvenile togue population ran into a snag. Fisheries biologists often rely on bag limits as a way of managing fish populations. According to Greg Burr, a fisheries specialist with the Downeast Region, the plan was to increase allowable ice fishing traps this winter on Phillips Lake from the current two to five. This would have resulted in more ice fishermen taking more togue through the ice this winter, an outcome that would have benefitted Phillips salmon population and togue growth as well. But Dedham officials, along with some year-round lake residents, submitted a petition to DIF&W urging the Commissioner not to allow the fisheries biologists to increase the ice fishing trap numbers from two to five. Angry Dedham residents reasoned that an increase in trap limits would mean more fishermen on "their" lake and more problems for them. State fisheries chief John Boland apparently decided that the public outcry wasn't worth the change in regulations. He overruled his own biologists. There will be no change in ice fishing regulations this winter at Phillips Lake.

According to Burr, there is a clear relationship between trap limits and angler days. That is, liberal trap limits attract more anglers. In 1995, when ice anglers were allowed 5 ice fishing traps on Phillips, biologists tracked 563 anglers days during the ice fishing season. Conversely, during the winter of 2000, not long after the trap limits were reduced to two per angler, biologists tracked only 145 angler days that winter.

If Dedham officials are concerned about more ice anglers leaving rubbish on the lake, or stealing firewood from a vacant cottage, that is an enforcement issue, not a fisheries management issue. At both Branch Lake and Phillips Lake scientific fisheries managemnt is being held hostage by social issues and legal threats. Do we want that? Do we want special interest lobbies, whether it be town officials, camp owners, No Snare Task Forces, or the Humane Society of the United States trumping the recommendations of professional wildlife and fisheries biologists?

I don't think so. Unless we are willing to surrender our time-tested infrastructure for managing and protecting our natural resources, we had best start recognizing how this New Tyranny is chipping away at our historic prerogatives. The only solution that I can think of is to hire and appoint courageous administrators who refused to be cowed by strident people with lawyers.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program "Maine Outdoors" heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is

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