Maine’s trapping program will be the subject of a series of informational meetings to be held around the state next week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The meetings will encourage public comment on a federal trapping permit that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has spent five years working to get. Trappers believe the long wait is coming to an end — signaling a chance to cull the coyote population in northern Maine.

The department now is paying hunters and trappers to target coyotes in deer yards in order to decrease the coyote population enough to help the dwindling deer herd.

The federal government is considering how the special permit could allow Maine’s trapping program to continue at past levels and still protect Canada lynx, an endangered species.

The complex permit application has a long history.

In 2006, a lawsuit filed against the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife led to restrictions on the trapping program, including rules that prevent trappers from using foothold traps with jaws larger than 5 3/8 inches in diameter.

In 2008, the department applied for a federal incidental-take permit to allow the state’s trapping program to continue without restrictions in northern Maine, where lynx live.

Wally Jakubas, who leads the mammal research division in the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the permit would reduce restrictions on trapping and ensure that the department would not be sued again over its program.

“We want to make sure we are able to use our trapping program,” he said. “It’s a high priority. We want to assure trappers in northern Maine can continue trapping without being brought into court and sued over incidental take of lynx.”

The department has been sued twice in the past five years for trappers catching lynx in foothold traps. It was sued in 2006 by the Animal Protection Institute in California and in 2008 by the Animal Welfare Institute in California and the Wildlife Alliance of Maine in Bangor.

The first lawsuit prompted the trapping restrictions; the second sought to forbid trapping in Maine.

Trappers got a victory last fall, when the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston affirmed what a U.S. District Court judge in Bangor had decided in November 2009: that trapping should continue in Maine.

Each lawsuit has cost the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife as much as $100,000 in legal fees, said Jakubas, who wrote the state’s 300-page federal permit application.

If Maine gets the federal permit, the department may pursue a permit for snaring to target coyotes in deer yards, Jakubas said. But some trappers say that just the permit being sought now would let them trap the predators enough to help deer.

“One trapper told me the reason people didn’t want to go up and trap as many coyotes as they could in northern Maine was because they were afraid to catch lynx. I think getting the (permit) will remove the stigma,” Jakubas said.

Dana Johnson, of Wells, a past president of the 64-year-old Maine Trappers Association, said he thinks the state will get the permit, which definitely would help the deer herd up north.

“This year, (former Maine deer biologist) Gerry Lavigne and the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine made up another predator task force, and the task force put out that they want to catch coyotes with foot traps,” Johnson said. “Under the restrictions from the first lawsuit, they can’t (in the northern Maine hunting zones). It can’t be implemented until the state gets the incidental-take permit.”

Next week’s meetings are aimed only at informing the public. No decisions will be made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for months.

But Jakubas and Johnson think Maine will ultimately get its permit.

“It’s a question of how many modifications the public and Fish and Wildlife want on this plan,” Jakubas said. “I’m happy with this plan. I think this plan protects lynx and it also lets trappers pursue their avocation.”