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Maine's Snaring Showdown

Published 06/15/03
By Susan Cockrell and Will LaPage
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 34 Number 2, Summer 2003

Everyone will remember the clever way the “good guys” in those old-time Western movies scrambled from shrub to tree to boulder, shooting from all angles to make their enemies think they were up against a legion. That same idea has worked wonders for a handful of determined animal protection activists steadily working toward a ban on wildlife snaring in Maine.

Neck snares are wire loops set on wildlife paths. When an animal walks into the loop, it begins to tighten. As the animal struggles to free itself, the loop slowly strangles it. The neck snare was banned in Maine in the 1930s, along with set guns, but it was reinstated to kill coyotes in the 1980s. Neck snares also frequently kill other animals, such as foxes, hares, bobcats, fishers, endangered lynx and bald eagles, companion animals, and even deer and moose.

Every winter, from December through March, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (IF&W) pays trappers to set snares to reduce coyote predation and artificially enhance the number of whitetail deer, thus providing more targets for hunters. While it’s true that coyotes prey on deer during deep-snow winters, biologists and activists agree that this predator/prey relationship is the basis for a healthier deer herd and ecosystem.

Since coyotes appeared in Maine in the 1960s, dispersing from the west as a result of extermination efforts, they have become the scapegoat for fluctuating deer numbers, which has much more to do with the whitetail’s natural range, ruthless clear-cutting of Maine's northern forests, and unrestrained poaching. In spite of these widely understood contributing factors, there is a shocking, almost medieval, hatred of coyotes by a small but powerful lobby in Maine — hunters and trappers — and the story is often told of how, when the first coyote was killed in Maine years ago, people drove from miles around just to spit on the carcass.

Since the program’s inception, animal protection activists have protested it on the grounds of its cruelty and non-selectivity. They also know that such efforts to control coyotes amount to biological lunacy. Coyotes unfailingly respond to high death rates by breeding earlier and producing more and larger litters of healthier, better-fed pups, who are more likely to survive.

After nearly 20 years of watching as their protests were ignored, and the coyote snaring program expanded at the insistence of the hunting and trapping lobbies and the state legislature, activists got two major breaks.

First, Maine Public Radio broke a story about a report by an IF&W biologist documenting a large number of “jellyheads” in a study of snared coyote carcasses. “Jellyhead” describes hemorrhaging in animals for whom the struggle and death in a snare was prolonged and agonizing. Broken bones and teeth also provided evidence that the coyotes had tried mightily to escape strangulation, and that some had still been alive as long as three days later, when they were bludgeoned or shot.

The second and more startling event was another leak — an IF&W interoffice memo from a field biologist that was a clear indictment of the snaring program. The biologist wrote that “coyotes are not a significant threat to our deer population”; that “killing an animal by strangling it with a wire loop often results in a slow, painful death, sometimes lasting days”; that the “presence of a large canid predator is a benefit to deer, not a detriment”; and that “it would violate state humane laws to treat a domestic dog in this same manner.”

With what seemed to be cries for help from biologists whose science is sacrificed to special-interest politics, activists at last saw a crack in the wall of this indefensible program. They organized the NoSnare Task Force (www.nosnare.org) around that old activist slogan — Endless Pressure Endlessly Applied — and launched a three-pronged attack on coyote snaring, shooting from three crucial angles: education, legislation, and litigation.

The Nation’s Laughingstock

First the activists contacted outdoor writer Ted Williams, and supplied him with significant IF&W memos, reports, and emails accessed through the Freedom of Information Act. In his scathing article, “Maine’s War on Coyotes,” in the September 2002 Audubon magazine (subsequently revised and reprinted in Downeast, February 2003), he called the pro-snaring lobbyists “extremist” and Maine’s IF&W the nation’s “laughingstock.”

NoSnare members published a steady stream of letters and op-ed pieces in major newspapers; collected thousands of signatures on petitions asking for an end to snaring; and, through a generous grant from the Humane Society of the United States, created a professionally designed web site.

With permission to use reprints of the Ted Williams article, they prepared information packets, sending them to every wildlife interest and animal welfare organization in the state. Because of the widespread publicity, the issue became a subject of classroom study and discussion across Maine. And, for the first time, the state’s wildlife biologists took a position opposing the program.

Using grants from API, The Fund for Animals, the Grassroots Environmental Fund, and HSUS, NoSnare paid the expenses of a pro bono lawyer, Bruce Merrill of Portland, to prepare a lawsuit against IF&W based on violations of the Endangered Species Act. The FOIA-accessed information revealed that, as the snaring program continued to be expanded and liberalized over time, many IF&W staff biologists had expressed grave concerns about the vulnerability of lynx and bald eagles to snares. At least two eagles and one lynx have been reported killed in snares. It is important to note that, given the intense public scrutiny of the snaring program, there is little incentive for trappers to report nontarget catches. In February 2003, NoSnare filed a notice of intent to sue IF&W and, at this writing, activists are awaiting a response from Maine’s attorney general.

Although NoSnare’s case is based on the non-selectivity of the snare, it is actually only one of many issues of concern to activists. If the snare were 100% selective, NoSnare would still oppose it, because activists believe that no animal deserves to die in a snare.

Prolonged and Rancorous

The groundswell of public interest in banning snaring resulted in the introduction of two bills for consideration by the Maine State Legislature. After a prolonged and rancorous public hearing, NoSnare’s bill to ban the neck snare was killed by the sportsman-stacked IF&W Committee, which oversees all wildlife-related legislation. A second bill, to end the snaring program, was amended by the Committee to “improve” the snaring program by liberalizing it. You read it right: a bill that was intended to stop snaring, instead now codifies it. After a short debate in the House and the Senate, LD 237, passed the Maine State Legislature.

NoSnare activists don’t view this outrageous duplicity as a total loss. It is nothing less than a milestone in Maine when a wildlife protection bill actually gets past the hunting and trapping lobbies and their captive, the IF&W Committee, to become the subject of deliberation by the entire legislature. Even more encouraging was the actual roll call: In the House, LD 237 passed with a 88-51 vote, and in the Senate, 19-12. These slim margins are a stunning testimony to the power of the resolve and unwavering commitment of NoSnare activists.

We are unable to reveal, even here, the actual number of activists involved in the NoSnare Task Force — it is, after all, the secret of its success. It’s safe to say that a healthy dose of what Terry Williams calls “sacred rage” on behalf of the animals, and endless pressure endlessly applied, will guarantee, sooner rather than later, an end to wildlife snaring in Maine.

Susan Cockrell and Will La Page are wildlife activists living in Holden, ME, with their goats, dogs, and free-range chickens. Both teach at the University of Maine, and are two of the three founding members of Maine's NoSnare Task Force.

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