At the State House on St. Patrick’s Day, there was an excitement in the air and a feeling of cooperation that had not been seen among the outdoor community since 2004, when a similar group organized to defeat a referendum that imperiled how bear are hunted in Maine.

That year, those with a passion for the outdoors put aside minor differences and united for a common cause.

Now, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is asking those who love the outdoors to do it once again, this time to save the deer herd from all but disappearing in northern, western and eastern Maine.

On March 17, IFW Commissioner Chandler Woodcook presented the “Game Plan for Deer” to a packed room that included Gov. Paul LePage, state Senate President Kevin Raye, House Speaker Robert Nutting and an assortment of leaders from Maine’s outdoor world, including the Maine Professional Guides Association, the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the Forest Products Council of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, Maine Audubon, the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine and other outdoor partners.

The plan outlines a road to recovery for Maine’s deer herd. It has five components involving deer wintering habitat, population management, predator control, planning and public outreach.

Each component is an important aspect of the recovery plan, but perhaps none is more significant than predator control, the killing of one species to protect another.

The game plan puts coyotes in the crosshairs. While the department does acknowledge significant fawn mortality because of black bears, the state’s plan focuses predator-control efforts on coyotes.

“There’s no question that coyotes prey on deer, and they are a significant predator during severe winters where there is depleted habitat,” said Sandy Ritchie, a wildlife biologist who oversees habitat conservation and special projects for IFW. Ritchie, who has helped create 15-year management plans for Maine’s big game, was instrumental in pulling together the various components of the plan.

“Coyote control will not increase deer numbers until habitat can come back, but it is certainly one effort that we can address now,” Ritchie said.

In order to address that, the deer plan has strategies designed to kill coyotes that are preying on deer in wintering areas.

“Predation is one piece of this puzzle that needs to be addressed, but the way to address this is not by killing every single coyote. The way to do this is a very targeted, very focused and very sustained predator control effort,” Ritchie said.

In the plan, IFW details strategies to kill coyotes where predation is documented. The IFW already works with coyote hunters by directing them to deer-wintering areas where coyotes are feeding on deer. Now, IFW plans to implement an animal damage-control program that includes shooting coyotes over bait and hunting coyotes with dogs.

In addition, IFW will renew its efforts to implement a trapping program in these areas. That will need the blessing of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the form of an incidental take permit that would allow trapping coyotes where there are Canada lynx present.

And for the first time in nearly 10 years, IFW is willing to compensate hunters for their efforts in targeting coyotes that are preying on deer in wintering areas. Woodcock announced that the department has set aside $20,000 to help compensate hunters for their efforts in targeting coyotes in remote parts of Maine.

“We already have a program in place, but we have not had the money to fund it,” Ritchie said. “Now we may pay hunters for their mileage, or depending on the situation, some type of hourly wage for their services, which is what we used to do when we had funding in our animal damage-control program.”

“It is really easy to say ‘Yeah, I want to hunt coyotes, but I want to do it within a 10-mile radius of my home’ versus ‘I am serious about doing this, and I am willing to go where you need me,’” Ritchie said. “This is not a bounty program. We are not paying people for the number of coyotes that they kill. This is simply to defray expenses accrued by folks who are doing this.”

Still, targeting predators to enhance game populations is extremely uncommon. In fact, a Google search and several phone calls yielded only one other state where the fish and game department kills predators to protect another game species.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game deploys a predator-control program on wolves and bears to stabilize or reverse declining moose and caribou populations in parts of the state. State officials say it works, but they also say predator programs are effective only when, among other factors, habitat can support more prey.

Which brings us back to the deer in Maine, where not one factor but several are affecting herds in western, northern and eastern Maine.

Perhaps Woodcock summed it up best in his opening remarks: “There is not one single factor for the low numbers of deer in parts of our state. You can’t solely blame coyotes or bears. They play a part but are not the only reason. Just as culpable are severe winters, the loss of quality habitats and deer yards, poaching, vehicle collisions and winter feeding. We can’t control Maine winters. Wish we could. But we can work together on reducing all of the dangers to (deer) herds.”

Mark Latti is a former public information officer for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and a registered Maine Guide. He can be reached at:

[email protected]