ELLSWORTH, Maine — The contentious issue of trapping in areas of Maine inhabited by Canada lynx is about to get a hearing with federal wildlife officials.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking the public’s feedback on Maine wildlife officials’ application for a permit to effectively shield the state from liability when trappers inadvertently capture Canada lynx, a federally protected species.
Officials with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife first filed their proposal for a federal “incidental take permit” on Canada lynx in August 2008. Since then, the issue of Maine’s trapping regulations and whether they adequately protect lynx has been the subject of two federal court cases that, although unsuccessful, forced the state to change the rules for trappers throughout northern Maine.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened the public comment period on DIF&W’s application for a permit that would allow the state to continue running a trapping season throughout much of northern, western and eastern Maine.
In addition to accepting written comments for 90 days, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold three public hearings on the state’s draft plan. The meetings are scheduled for Dec. 13 at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Dec. 14 at the Black Bear Inn in Orono, and Dec. 15 at the University of Southern Maine in Gorham.
Meagan Racey, spokeswoman for the federal agency, said it takes time for agency staff to prepare the lengthy environmental assessment required as part of the permit process. Typically it takes another six to nine months for the agency to issue a decision on a permit plan, however that timeline could be longer in this case.
“It has taken time,” Racey said. “But the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife continues to make progress and make improvements in protecting lynx.”
Canada lynx are protected from harm or harassment — including trapping — because they are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Wally Jakubas, mammal group leader for DIF&W, said recent surveys indicate that Maine is home to between 600 and 1,200 of the reclusive wildcats, which are distinguished by their large, furry paws that function like snowshoes.
An incidental take permit would allow the state to continue operating a trapping season in areas inhabited by lynx by protecting DIF&W and trappers from legal claims under the Endangered Species Act if lynx are inadvertently caught in legally set traps intended for other species. But first, Maine wildlife officials must prove that they are taking steps to conserve lynx and to minimize effects on the wildcats from trapping.
“It is important because unless we want to deal with future lawsuits, we need this protection,” Jakubas said. “And it also protects Maine trappers who want to continue these activities.”
Inadvertent trapping of lynx has been a major legal issue for DIF&W in recent years. Each year, numerous lynx are captured in traps set for other species, such as pine marten and fisher. While the vast majority of those animals are released alive, there remains public disagreement between DIF&W officials and animal welfare organizations about whether the traps — often padded, leghold traps — cause injuries to the cats.
Daryl DeJoy, executive director of the Wildlife Alliance of Maine, was party to the two lawsuits filed in federal court alleging that DIF&W was violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing trapping practices that lead to lynx being caught and sometimes killed in traps.
A federal judge ultimately sided with the state in those cases, but not before compelling DIF&W to change the trapping rules to help avoid additional incidents involving lynx.
On Tuesday, DeJoy acknowledged that “every change in the law has been a little bit of improvement.” But DeJoy said he found little proof in the state’s 320-page permit application showing that DIF&W was planning to take adequate steps to “mitigate or minimize take of lynx,” as required under the law.
“This is the start of a long process,” DeJoy said. “We are hoping that people will read the fine print in this, and there is a lot of fine print.”
Jakubas noted that no lynx have been reportedly killed by traps in two years due, in part, to new restrictions on the use of so-called “body-gripper” traps often deadly to lynx. The allowable width of the jaw on some traps also has been reduced, among other changes. The state also distributes materials on the more recent rules and operates a hot line where trappers can report incidents so that biologists or wardens can respond.
But the cats continue to show up in traps — including five or six in the first few weeks of the trapping season so far. All of those lynx were released alive, Jakubas said.
DeJoy said several of those lynx were released by the trappers without first being inspected by wildlife biologists trained to look for signs of injury. And DeJoy reiterated Tuesday that he suspects DIF&W or federal biologists never hear about other cases.
“I do not believe every lynx that is trapped is reported,” he said.
DIF&W estimated in its application that, on average, 13 lynx would be caught each year during the 15-year period covered by an incidental take permit, with the vast majority of those lynx released alive with little or no injury. Jakubas said that estimate may, in fact, be on the high side due to the changes enacted since the draft plan was prepared in 2008.
For information on lynx and the state’s application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visit www.fws.gov/mainefieldoffice/Canada_lynx.html.