Lynx trapping decision hinges on ‘take’ permit

Posted April 13, 2009, at 9:17 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A biologist with decades of experience trapping large carnivores in Canada and the United States told a federal court Monday that he believes Maine should prohibit most recreational trapping in lynx territory to protect the threatened wildcats.

“This is a fragile population, and any mortality or injuries that can exacerbate … the decline threatens the population,” Paul Paquet said during a U.S. District Court proceeding that could have significant implications on Maine’s small trapping community.

Paquet, an independent researcher affiliated with several Canadian universities, was the first witness called by two organizations — the Animal Welfare Institute and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine — that filed suit in District Court in Bangor against the state after several lynx were accidentally ensnared in traps.

The two groups allege that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is violating the federal Endangered Species Act by sanctioning activities that harm lynx. Maine is home to the eastern United States’ only self-sustaining population of the medium-sized cats, which are designated as “threatened” on the Endan-gered Species List.

The lawsuit has infuriated some in Maine’s sporting community who allege the plaintiffs’ real intent is to end all trapping in the state. Nearly 20 trappers and supporters sat on one side of the courtroom on Monday, while only two representatives of the plaintiffs’ groups plus their attorneys attended.

Eight lynx were reported caught by trappers in 2007 despite DIF&W’s adoption of new rules meant to help avoid such incidents. Then, during the 2008 trapping season, two lynx died in body-gripper or killer-type traps while two more were reported caught in leg-hold traps and released.

DIF&W has applied for what is known as an “incidental take permit” from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would protect the state and trappers whenever lynx are captured during otherwise lawful trapping. But attorneys said Monday it is unclear whether federal authorities will issue the permit before Maine’s trapping season begins in October.

Judge John Woodcock made clear he did not want to spend the time drafting an opinion only to have it nullified by federal wildlife officials a week or two later. The judge asked the state’s attorneys to give him a deadline for how much time DIF&W would need to respond to a court order in time for the trapping season in case the federal permit is not issued in time.

During roughly five hours of questioning by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Paquet explained that lynx are curious creatures that are especially easy to trap, sometimes repeatedly. He credited DIF&W for issuing new trapping regulations intended to minimize risks to the cats, such as prohibiting placement of body-gripper or killer traps on the ground.

“I thought they made sense,” Paquet said. “They were very complex, however, and I can’t imagine using those regulations myself.”

Paquet, who specializes in wolves and coyotes but has done extensive research on big cats in Canada and the western U.S., said lynx caught in foot-hold traps typically have lacerations, swelling or other injuries.

Any injuries, even those that appear minor, could affect the cats’ ability to chase down their preferred prey — the snowshoe hare — as well as escape predators or reproduce, he said. Paquet said Maine’s population of an estimated 500 lynx is too small to be considered viable.

“You could extinguish the population quite quickly with, for example, a rapid shift in climate,” he told the court.

The hearing, which is scheduled to go through Thursday, will continue today with the state’s attorneys resuming cross-examination of Paquet. The defense has notified the court of plans to call a long list of witnesses, including DIF&W officials and several members of the trapping community.

Skip Trask with the Maine Trappers Association said he agreed with Woodcock that the court should wait to see whether federal officials issue DIF&W the incidental take permit. Trask said he was looking forward to hearing the cross-examination of Paquet as well as the defense’s witnesses.

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