By Daymond Steer
FREEDOM — Faced with a request to cull the coyote population in the town forest, the Freedom Conservation Commission voted Tuesday not to spend any money to do so.
Proponents said a cull is needed in order to protect local fawns from predation and keep coyotes from dying of starvation.
However, opponents to culling said trapping the coyotes would be cruel and unnecessary.
The Freedom Town Forest totals 2,661 acres of woods, fields, mountains, streams and ponds. The forest's main access is off Ossipee Lake Road. A committee called the Forest Advisory Committee helps manage the forest on behalf of the town.
Just over a dozen people attended Tuesday's meeting at Freedom Town Hall, and most seemed to oppose the culling proposal, which was presented by Forest Advisory Committee Chairman Rob Hatch who also sits on the conservation commission.
Hatch seemed surprised by the interest that the meeting generated.
"You people are all here for coyotes?" he asked.
One man in the audience replied, "Yeah."
Hatch said that about a dozen years ago, before the town forest was acquired, residents were surveyed about what to do with the land. The top two responses were game management, followed by wildlife management.
On March 24, Hatch said he and others canvassed deer habitat on 12 miles of snowmobile trail. They counted the deer they saw and the deer tracks in the snow. He said they made sure they weren't double-counting deer tracks.
"Normally, there are 80 deer out there, and we are down to 58," Hatch said, adding that deep snow was mostly to blame for the herd's numbers being down by about 30 percent.
"When that occurs, the predators, they own it. No deer of any health is going to escape a coyote or a bobcat. They will just walk up and start chewing."
Hatch believes there are about 14.5 deer per square mile but would like to see about 20 deer per square mile.
He said the FAC believes the best way to boost deer numbers is to save the fawns, which normally have a mortality rate of about 76 percent in their first four weeks of life.
"To bring that herd back quickly, the best logical solution we have from a management standpoint is to thin out the coyotes this spring before the fawns are born," said Hatch.
To perform the cull, the Conservation Commission would have to release about $700 to pay for a trapper. The money would come from the wildlife habitat fund, which is held in escrow.
Asked how many coyotes would need to be trapped, Hatch replied that it would be between four and six.
He went on to say that the animals would be caught in foothold traps. He stressed that such traps merely hold the animal by the paw and don't break bones or cause loss of circulation. Traps must be checked every 24 hours.
He said that any animals caught by accident would be released without injury. Coyotes would be dispatched with a .22 pistol.
"If you catch something you don't want, you let it go," said Hatch adding he's fond of gray foxes and always releases them. "They leave without a limp."
The land could be posted to notify dog owners of the trapping operation.
Hatch said killing four coyotes would spare 24 fawns.
However, some residents seemed skeptical of the numbers Hatch provided.
Audience members Jim Breslin and Ann Pierce wondered whether trapping the coyotes would do any good. Breslin said he had read article on coyote management in Maine.
"They found the more you take out of an area, the more coyotes come," said Breslin, adding that culls encourage more coyotes to move in and coyotes have bigger litters after their population takes a dive.
Hatch replied that those who say coyote culls are counter-productive are relying on old studies from the 1970s or misleading advocacy information or are misquoting legitimate studies.
He said that if the deer population crashes, new coyote pups will have a hard time surviving.
Carol Demore said she enjoys walking in the forest but is concerned about picking up ticks from deer. She is also concerned that she or her daughter, Dana, will hit a deer when they are driving on Ossipee Lake Road.
"I've always lived in areas with too many deer, and they are very scary because you can get killed by them when you drive and you get tick bites and get terrible diseases," said Demore. "So I don't really understand the concern about the deer unless there is a concern they are going to get completely wiped out. ... I am completely against trapping, and I think it's incredibly inhumane."
Dana Demore said she shares the same concerns.
Resident Bill Elliot said nature should be left alone.
"Why fool with Mother Nature?" asked Elliot, adding that he's read that trapping is considered inhumane. "What happened years ago when we weren't around? They (the animals) all survived."
Hatch said he realizes that most people are unfamiliar with animal trapping but it's something he's grown up with. In fact, he recalled years past when the town used to pay a bounty for porcupines.
"You'd be at a meeting, and it wouldn't be uncommon for someone to come in to selectmen with a little bag of porcupine noses and want their 50 cents a nose," said Hatch. "That's the way I grew up here. There is nothing new about trappers."
Several people wondered why the coyotes need to be trapped when there is no closed season on hunting coyotes.
Hatch replied that although there is open season on coyotes, the nighttime coyote hunting season has ended, as has trapping season. Hunting them during the day is difficult because they generally come out at night.
He said animal control trappers may do their work outside of the hunting and trapping seasons and that New Hampshire Fish and Game has given its blessing to the proposed culling. Hatch also said in his experience, large Havahart traps don't work for coyotes, and even if they did, relocating coyotes isn't legal.
Some audience members and commission members tried to haggle over the numbers of coyotes to be eliminated, but Hatch stood firm at between four and six, saying any less wouldn't make a big enough difference to justify the money spent.
At the end of the discussion, the committee members voted 4-3 not to spend money on coyote trapping.Voting against the request were chairman Paul Elie, Cheryl Harris, Kyle Johnson and Sarah Tabor. In the minority were Hatch, Alice Custard and John Roman.
Some commission members said they supported Hatch because they trusted his expertise and because Fish and Game was apparently on board.
Other members cited the same concerns as the audience and the lack of time to do additional research.
"The motion fails," said Elie who, despite voting against the cull, insisted he thinks the FAC does a great job managing the forest.