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Drop in Revenue Affects Conservation Efforts in Maine

April 09, 2008 - MEDFORD -- It is a bitter cold day in January, and the snow is deep as wildlife biologist Jennifer Vashon heads out on her snowmobile in search of animal tracks in a clear-cut. It is not common deer or moose tracks she is in pursuit of, but tracks belonging to the elusive and endangered Canada lynx.

"Snow track surveys tell us where the lynx are in the state, and we can look at range expansion just by following tracks," said Vashon, who is a specialist on lynx. "We sample a proportion of Maine, and we work north to south. When we stop finding lynx, we've determined the borders for their habitation."

The snow track surveys have been conducted since 2003, providing biologists with valuable information about the health of the lynx population in Maine, estimated conservatively at around 500. That population is considered healthy because of an abundance of the lynx's primary prey the snowshoe hare, which thrives in the clear-cuts created during the spruce budworm epidemic from 1976-1985.

The lynx and snowshoe hare populations are directly linked. Now, clear-cuts and areas where the budworm wiped out the trees are getting older and, as a result, the lynx population could change.

The lynx project is just a sampling of the work that is funded by the chickadee check-off and loon conservation plate sales. During the past decade, contributions to the fund and sales of the plates have decreased dramatically.

Vashon, though, continues her work.

In the spring, she'll find herself in the passenger seat of a Cessna 185, looking for lynx in the remote Allagash region. This time her search is aided by the use of radio-telemetry, which the department started using in 1999. Since the program began, biologists have been able to track 64 lynx, using radio collars as well as small computer chips that are placed under the skin of the animal.

"We can locate the animal and monitor them twice a week," Vashon said. "The collar has a signal that slows dramatically when the animal dies. We can get in there pretty quickly to where the animal is and determine the cause of death. Also, lynx give birth to kittens in May, and we monitor movements that indicate a den has been established. We go in around four weeks after we believe the den was established and count the number of kittens, fit them with ear tags and a microchip under the skin. We determine the kittens' sex ratio and return them to the den. We come back later to determine what makes a good denning habitat."

With fewer taxpayers and motorists marking the chickadee check-off on tax forms or purchasing the loon conservation plate, conservation work is at stake.

"We depend entirely for important research on nongame funding sources," said biologist Phillip deMaynadier, reptile, amphibian and invertebrate group leader for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "The loon plate and the chickadee check-off are our bread and butter. We've noticed the impact in our office with decreasing funds. We've been told to be very prudent in the use of those funds."

The state funds are used to attract federal funds that support nongame conservation in Maine. As a result, there is a lot of federal money at stake.

"This is really critical that people donate to this," said George Mutula, coordinator of the endangered and threatened species program for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "There has definitely been a decline, which can affect research and management.

"Part of the goal of the program is to keep common species common. We get different amounts from federal matching sources. In other words, if people donate a dollar, it can generate from one to nine additional federal dollars."

The resurgence of the bald eagle in Maine is an example of a successful program funded in part by the chickadee check-off. Because of extensive conservation work during the past several years, the eagle has been taken off Maine's endangered list and is now on the threatened list. People who have given to the fund aren't necessarily sportsmen.

"It is a way for people who don't hunt or fish but enjoy wildlife to be able to support wildlife conservation in Maine," said Lisa Kane, the natural science educator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "The money raised from the chickadee check-off declined because of all the other options that are available as a tax check-off."

There are 10 organizations listed on the Maine income tax schedule for the voluntary contributions and purchase of park passes, including the chickadee check-off. Before 1998, the chickadee check-off was on the first page of the Maine income tax form.

"In 1998, the Maine Bureau of Taxation moved the chickadee check-off from the front of the tax form to a supplemental," deMaynadier said. "There was a 40 percent decline in a two-year period, and it was largely attributable to the supplemental form."

All money donated to the fund, whether through the tax check-off, car registrations, grants or direct gifts, is deposited into a separate interest-bearing account with the stipulation that money can only be spent on the conservation of Maine's endangered and nongame species.

In contrast, revenue generated from hunting, fishing and trapping license fees goes to supporting the game species.

There are now 33 species of fish and wildlife listed as endangered or threatened under Maine's Endangered Species Act.The list is updated every five years. Three of those species are also federally listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. An additional 16 species now or historically occurring in Maine are listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but not under the Maine Endangered Species Act.

Endangered species are native to Maine and in immediate danger of disappearing from the state because their populations are critically low or declining in number. Habitat loss or degradation, overexploitation, disease and competition with other species cause species to become rare. The continued existence of these species in the state is unlikely without implementing special measures to protect the species and their habitats. Threatened species are not critically in danger of immediate disappearance, but will probably become endangered if populations experience further decline.

"The department's major funding is from the sportsmen, but the public is telling us that we are responsible for game and nongame species. It isn't fair for sportsmen to do it all," deMaynadier said.

"That is where the birth of the endangered and nongame species fund came from to try to address that gap."


by CATHY GENTHNER, this article first appeared in the Portland Press Herald, April 6, 2008.

Cathy Genthner is a registered Maine Guide and licensed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to guide snowmobile
trips. She is the owner of River Bluff Camps in Medford, Maine, located off of ITS-83.


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