If anyone were looking for proof of the gulf between man and animals, the recent flap over a coyote hunting derby in Jackman is exhibit A. Driving the derby is the widely held belief that coyotes are “bad” animals, undesirable because they devastate the state’s deer herd. Another view is that coyotes and deer are neither good nor bad, but rather creatures trying to carve out a living in the same ecosystem.
If this widely held prejudice about coyotes were reined in by state policy, it would be less worrisome. But hunters can shoot and kill as many coyotes as they want without registering those kills (unless they are exporting the hides out of state), which suggests deer are, in the words of George Orwell, more equal than other animals.
Locals defended the tournament, saying they were protecting their economic interests by reducing the coyote population, which many blame for thinning an already sparse deer herd. The health of the deer herd has economic implications, so that is no small consideration. The Jackman area, like many rural areas in Maine, rakes in dollars when deer hunters come to stay in motels and lodges and eat in local restaurants.
But the deer herd’s recent decline is much more likely to be linked to recent winters with heavy snows and the loss of habitat. Camilla Fox, director of the California-based Project Coyote, told Maine Public Radio that coyotes, in fact, keep deer populations healthier. “In a natural cycle of predator-prey, the predators like coyotes will keep down the sick, diseased, compromised animals and actually help to keep the herd genetically robust by keeping those weaker animals out of the gene pool.”
John DePue of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said there is no estimate on Maine’s coyote population. Though 1,901 kills were tagged for export in the 2008-2009 season, it’s impossible to know how many were killed and left to rot.
“Coyotes do kill deer,” he said, but bears are known to take fawns in the spring, and bobcats will kill deer in any season. The state is not oblivious to the coyote population, Mr. DePue said, noting that there were unlimited takes allowed on fisher and martens until several years ago, and when evidence suggested a dip in numbers, limits were set.
But a policy that favors one animal over another, with purely commercial motives, is short sighted and probably is doomed to create unintended consequences. In the early 20th century, staff at some national parks routinely slaughtered wolves and birds of prey such as owls to encourage the species tourists wanted to see, such as elk, or catch, such as trout. Today, those policies are seen as primitive, wanton and wasteful.
The state’s deer herd is indeed an economic driver for Maine, and state policymakers must pay attention to the factors that affect its health. But a more sophisticated understanding of the role coyotes play in the ecosystem is overdue.