September 20, 2018
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Listen to our wildlife biologists. We can avoid more quixotic boondoggles that way.

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Ron Joseph, Special to the BDN

During a hot, humid week in July 1989, I stood on the bed of a slow-moving Maine Department of Transportation herbicide spray truck. I wore a baggy dark green jumpsuit, rubber gloves and boots, respirator, yellow hard hat and safety goggles — odd attire for a state wildlife biologist. My hands gripped a fire hose shooting a stream of wolf urine onto Route 201 ditches from Moose River to the Forks.

Bill Vail, then the commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, directed me to work with the Department of Transportation. When I grumbled, Vail replied, “Wolf urine won’t deter moose from crossing roads, but our participation is paramount to maintaining good relations with a Somerset County legislator.” As a campaign strategy, the lawmaker twisted arms to get the wildlife department to purchase barrels of Minnesota wolf urine to demonstrate his commitment to halting moose collisions — a worthy goal, but a hare-brained solution.

In the late 1980s, rising vehicle-moose collisions were due to multiple factors. Moose populations had increased as a result of wide-scale clear-cutting in the mid-1970s, which by 1989 had spurred the growth of dense sapling hardwoods — a moose smorgasbord. Route 201 had also been widened, repaved and straightened to accommodate fast-moving, smaller vehicles — many traveling on summer nights when moose are most active.

At lunch, I reread the container’s label: “Wolf urine is a powerful repellent, causing fear in coyotes, moose, bears, weasels, beaver and deer. Applying this product replicates the territorial marking habits of wild wolves, triggering an instinctive response in animals to flee.”

Predictably, the label did not live up to its billing: Moose-vehicle collisions continued during and after expensive taxpayer-funded spray applications.

Inept and baffling decisions aren’t limited to legislators: Governors routinely appoint controversial individuals to lead state agencies. Gov. Paul LePage appointed Patricia Aho to head the Department of Environmental Protection. As a Pierce Atwood LLP lobbyist and attorney, she helped clients fight environmental regulations. Gov. John Brennan appointed the late Glenn Manuel — founder of the Southern Aroostook Potato Growers Association — commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Manuel ordered biologists to stock ptarmigan in Aroostook County and Atlantic salmon in the Aroostook River, a low-priority salmon restoration river. A fisheries biologist quietly protested by stocking six adult male Atlantic salmon, but no females. The ptarmigan directive was ignored.

Pleased with positive press coverage of the wildlife department’s peregrine falcon reintroduction program, Manuel instructed the late Alan Hutchinson, then head of Maine’s non-game program, to reintroduce passenger pigeons. That was impossible, Hutchinson told Manuel, because the species had been extinct since 1914.

Many haughty state legislators — including former state Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, who had a reputation of being unusually rude to biologists and environmentalists — are so openly hostile to biologists, many refuse to testify before joint committees. Why bother driving several hours to Augusta, they reason, to speak for 2 minutes and be ridiculed? Other lawmakers demonstrate equal disdain of science by circumnavigating written plans developed jointly by the wildlife department and public working groups.

Former state Rep. Robert Saucier, D-Presque Isle, introduced in 2013 a coyote killing bill — always a surefire strategy to secure votes from a majority of deer hunters — using funds raised by Pittman-Robertson Act, which levies excise taxes on firearms and ammunition. The bill — LD 96 — died when biologists informed a legislative committee that Saucier’s funding proposal was illegal. Had he read the federal act, he would have learned that those dollars are earmarked for state habitat acquisition and enhancement projects, not predator control.

Most half-baked bills are intercepted by Inland Fisheries and Wildlife before reaching committee. In the late 1980s, when it was learned that Baxter State Park’s woodland caribou — a species reintroduced, in part, with funds raised by school children’s bottle drives and bake sales — were suffering from brain worms, a Penobscot County legislator proposed auctioning caribou hunting permits to the highest bidders. If caribou were likely to die of disease, he reasoned, the state should make money by shooting them. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife torpedoed another wacky idea from several legislators to award any-deer hunting permits to those who killed 20 coyotes before they could propose it as legislation.

State biologists don’t have all the answers, but they know more about fish and wildlife issues than politicians. Is it too much to ask legislators to be open-minded to sound science and to treat public servants more respectfully?

Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist. He lives in central Maine.

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