As we enter another Maine winter, deer hunters and biologists will be holding their collective breath.

Already in poor shape, one more tough winter could push Maine’s deer herd over an ecological precipice from which it might take decades to recover. Even with a mild winter, there isn’t much promise for the immediate future, but just maybe, with some sweeping changes, there can be hope in the long term.

On behalf of state Sen. David Trahan of Waldoboro, George Smith, former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), recently convened a one-day workshop on deer at SAM’s Augusta headquarters. The objective was to create a comprehensive deer initiative for Maine.

Trahan hopes and expects that Gov.-elect Paul LePage will work with him to enact and implement this initiative.

The session began with a quick overview of current conditions. Over roughly the last 20 years, Maine has gone from one of the country’s premier deer hunting destinations to no longer even being on the list.

Outside of northern New England, deer populations have skyrocketed, as have the number and quality of antlered bucks. Meanwhile, the quality of Maine’s bucks has diminished statewide and the overall number of deer has dropped in the south and plummeted in the north.

Many areas of northern and eastern Maine now support only one deer per square mile, or less!

One of the first issues addressed was habitat, more specifically winter habitat. Much is being done, but far more should and can be done to restore vital wintering areas. The rub is that most of the land is privately owned industrial timberland.

The state initially tried zoning, but abandoned that effort as it conflicted with landowner’s rights.

Officials instead sought cooperative agreements, which many have criticized. They look good on paper, but are nonbinding and there’s little or no objective assessment of how well, or even if, protective guidelines are being followed.

The situation was exacerbated by the economy. As Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Lee Kantar pointed out, “The timber industry drives the north country’s economy.” But a poor economy has driven shorter timber rotations.

Trahan also noted that federal stimulus money for biomass further promoted the harvest of younger trees. That means less mature timber, and less winter deer habitat.

Another key factor is Maine’s Forest Practices Act. Designed to protect land and wildlife, it has led to a dramatic shift in timber harvesting styles, away from large block cuts and toward smaller strip cuts. But former large block rotations also protected large blocks, including deer wintering areas. Strip cuts are great for moose and bear, but don’t promote winter deer habitat.

And the problem is not just with private land. The state owns roughly 600,000 acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Parks & Lands, much of it in the affected areas.

Maine Guide Don Kliener pointed out, “Public land, if well managed, should support a lot of deer, but it doesn’t.” Clearly, more needs to be done there as well.

Another major issue addressed at the workshop was predators. And the discussion began not with coyotes, but with bears.

Research from other states and neighboring provinces has shown unequivocally that bears are a significant predator of deer. They are undoubtedly impacting northern and eastern Maine’s deer populations. We just don’t know to what extent.

However, they are also an important economic resource for northern Maine’s recreational hunting industry, which includes guides, outfitters and a cadre of supporting business. The recent decline in deer has made bear hunting all that much more important to the local economy, which one attendee opined was at a critical point.

Bear hunting is all that’s left for some outfitters, and they don’t want to see the bear population reduced.

The group then moved on to the much maligned coyote. There is a direct correlation, not only in Maine, but throughout New England, and more recently in the Southeast, between the expansion of eastern coyote populations and the decline of deer numbers.

Healthy deer herds can withstand some level of coyote predation. Northern Maine’s cannot.

The greatest obstacle to coyote control though, is the lynx, or more precisely, its listing by the federal government as a threatened species.

The lynx listing was based not on science, but largely on a lack of information on the species’ status — it is considered a furbearer with regular open trapping seasons in neighboring Quebec and New Brunswick.

Maine and most other lynx states now have sufficient biological information that the federal government could delist the species and hand management over to the states. But it won’t, for fear of lawsuits from animal rights organizations. So no snaring is allowed in the most imperiled areas for lynx.

The meat of the session wrapped up with a discussion on nutrition, including some positive signs and efforts, at least on a small scale.

The concept of building food plots for deer is nothing new. It started in the South more than 40 years ago. I’ve been writing about and promoting plots for more than a decade and a half; but they’ve only recently caught on in the Northeast.

Two private groups, the Aroostook County Conservation Association and the Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsman’s Association are working on food plot programs in their respective regions to provide better winter nutrition for deer. Hopefully their efforts can provide a positive example for others to follow.

The group began talking about harvest strategies, particularly some type of point restrictions, but ran short on time. That only served to illustrate the myriad issues surrounding Maine’s deer herd and its deer hunt.

This workshop could be considered the first of a three-phase effort.

The first goal is to re-establish northern Maine’s deer herd. The second will be to restore Maine’s big buck population. The third will be to improve the overall quality of the deer herd and the deer hunting experience, statewide.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine Guide and a certified wildlife biologist who provides consultation to private landowners interested in improving wildlife habitat. He can be contacted at:

bhhunt@maine.rr.com