by RICK GREEN for the Keene Sentinel
January 11, 2024
The value of gray squirrels and coyotes was debated at an N.H. Senate committee meeting this week, with some speakers labeling them as a plentiful nuisance and others saying they are worthy of protection.
At issue were two bills, one to ban using dogs to hunt coyotes and the other to allow gray squirrels to be hunted year-round.
State Sen. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 548, which would change the definition of the furry rodent, specifying that it should no longer be considered a game animal.
The N.H. Fish and Game Commission regulates game animals, including setting seasons for when they can be legally hunted. If the gray squirrel was no longer considered a game animal, these regulations would end and hunters could kill them at will.
The current season for hunting gray squirrels is Sept. 1 through Jan. 31. A hunter’s daily limit is five. The season is intended to give time for gray squirrels to reproduce and raise their pups.
But Lang said there are so many gray squirrels that there is no reason for the state to impose any restrictions on those who want to hunt them. He also said many hunters teach their children to hunt by shooting squirrels. Some people eat the small animals, he added.
“Due to prolific breeding, they self-manage their own population,” Lang told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
He said they produce two litters a year, each containing several pups. Lang noted that their population rebounded even after the “squirrel apocalypse” of 2018. That’s when there was a lack of nuts, squirrels had to roam far and wide to get food, cars hit them by the thousands and their carcasses were frequently found on roads.
N.H. Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, also noted squirrels get into attics and cause thousands of dollars in damage. (State law allows property owners to eradicate animals out of season if they are damaging their property.)
N.H. Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, questioned whether his fellow lawmakers were considering the full picture.
“One wonders whether this living animal is just target practice,” Watters said. “How is killing for the sake of killing something that is in accord with something we want to teach our children?”
Lang tried to pass a similar bill two years ago, but said it was flawed because it sought to change a wrong statute. It died in the Senate.
Weldon Bosworth, who holds a doctorate in biology and is a member of the N.H. Wildlife Coalition, called the bill “regressive and ill-thought-out.”
“You wouldn’t have forests spread all around if you didn’t have squirrels,” he said. “They spread the seeds. They serve as prey to some of our most iconic predators – foxes, fishers, coyotes. You wouldn’t have those if they didn’t have prey.”
He also questioned the motives of those who want a year-round season on gray squirrels.
“This bill is for those people who get their jollies by killing wildlife animals instead of going to the target range,” he said.
He said killing them over the summer when they are trying to reproduce is “sort of morally reprehensible to me.”
Dan Bergeron, chief of the state Fish and Game Department’s Wildlife Division, opposed the bill. He said there is a possibility of over-hunting gray squirrels and added that the department would like to leave the regulations as is.
The committee on Tuesday also considered Senate Bill 346, which would ban the use of dogs in hunting coyotes.
Watters, who is the prime sponsor of the legislation, said this hunting method is cruel to the dogs. He said dogs wearing GPS collars chase the coyote, and when it is exhausted or cornered, there is a fight to the death if the hunter isn’t on the scene quick enough to shoot the coyote.
Testifying in opposition to the bill was David Blaze, a wildlife control operator who uses dogs to hunt coyotes that have become a nuisance to farmers. He noted that the coyote is a predator that sometimes kills domesticated animals, including pigs, chickens and even dogs.
“Those lost dog posters, we all know what those really mean – the dog has been snatched by a coyote,” he said.
Blaze also said it’s difficult to successfully hunt a coyote without using dogs. He also said fighting does not occur and the dogs are not harmed.
Bergeron, from the N.H. Fish and Game Department, opposed the bill. He said further study is needed on coyote hunting in the state, but added there seems to be a plentiful population of these animals.
Bosworth, of the N.H. Wildlife Coalition, testified that hunting coyotes with dogs is “gruesome.” Advocates of such hunting say it has a long tradition.
“But there are a number of traditions that humans have had that are basically for entertainment but are cruelty for animals – bear baiting, cock fighting, dog fighting.”
N.H. Sen. Howard Pearl, R-Loudon, said anyone who has seen a coyote kill a domestic animal would support all measures of hunting the predator.
But Bosworth said that kind of thinking has been devastating to some animal species.
“That was actually the opinion back in the 1800s when we wiped out all the wolves in New Hampshire and all the mountain lions,” he said. “And I disagree with that in its entirety.”
The committee took no immediate action on either bill. It will eventually schedule a vote on whether to recommend the measures to the full Senate.