Fewer out-of-state hunters are coming to Maine every November, and that’s a problem for the businesses that cater to them.

“Over the last four or five years, there has been a fairly significant effect on our business,” said Russell Walters, president of Northern Outdoors. “There’s been a steady decline.”

Northern Outdoors is a year-round resort in The Forks that offers guided adventures for rafting, fishing, hunting and more. During good years, Northern Outdoors accommodates about 200 out-of-state hunters. This year, Walters expects 50.

He’s not alone.

Purchases of hunting licenses by nonresidents have been trending downward for a decade, according to statistics from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. In 2000, the state sold more than 40,000 licenses to nonresidents. In 2010, that number had dropped to fewer than 28,000.

The question is: Why are fewer hunters visiting Maine?

The economy is one possible answer, but Walters said it’s not that simple.

Although Northern Outdoors has seen fewer visitors during deer hunting season, tourists are still booking trips for other activities.

“I’m not so sure the economy is having an effect on tourism,” Walters said. “In our rafting business — which is a major part of what we do — we saw an increase in numbers over the last two summers. And, in our snowmobile business we’re seeing steady advance reservations (this year).”

According to data from the Maine Office of Tourism, the number of overall out-of-state visitors to Maine is on the rise. In 2009, Maine saw a net visitation of 34.5 million. In 2010, that number grew to 37.5 million.

Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said her agency doesn’t maintain survey information on out-of-state hunters, so it’s difficult to say why that group isn’t returning in the same numbers. And, the agency doesn’t track how much money out-of-state hunters contribute to the state economy.

But, she said the economic impact is felt.

“Anecdotally, I know guides, outfitters, lodges and other businesses that cater to out-of-state deer hunters. Yes, they’re seeing … a bit of a decline, but hopefully they’re picking up other things to do.”

A diversity of options is a specialty of Northern Outdoors, Walters said. However, deer hunting is a crucial link to the year-round viability of his business.

“I’ve always said deer hunting is an important economic bridge from summer through to winter snowmobiling,” Walters said. “It’s the activity that allows us to keep people on staff throughout the year.”

“And really, there’s nothing else to keep people busy through the end of December when we start snowmobiling. That’s the important part that hunting plays in this business.”

The drop in reservations has curtailed the need for hunting guides, he said.

“In the past, we’d keep four or five full-time guides on (staff),” he said. “This year, we’ll have two guides on. And, some weeks, one of them is just scouting.”

DEER PERMITS TO BLAME?

Another possible reason for the decline in nonresident hunting could be the declining deer population in Maine. After two harsh winters in 2008 and 2009, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began issuing fewer any-deer permits in hopes of boosting herd numbers.

This year marks a precipitous drop in permits.

In 2011, the department issued 1,181 any-deer permits for nonresidents — a 55 percent decline from 2010, when the department issued 2,649.

The reduction in permits doesn’t restrict the number of hunting licenses that can be purchased by nonresidents — anyone can buy a license and hunt whitetail bucks. However, the reduction limits the number of hunters who are eligible to bag fawns and does.

Could the decline in permits affect the number of visitors?

Mark Ostermann, management analyst with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, doesn’t think so.

“Out-of-staters come for — and this is a generalization — the big bucks,” Ostermann said. “The permits are not a major driver of people coming to Maine to hunt.”

Debbie Blood, owner of Cedar Ridge Outfitters, agreed the effect of fewer any-deer permits will likely be nominal.

Blood and her husband provide lodging and guide services in Jackman. She estimates 85 percent of her clients are from out of state.

“It doesn’t have any impact on us at all, because people who go on guided trips aren’t hunting for does,” she said.

BLAME THE ECONOMY

Nonetheless, Blood said she’s seen an estimated 50 percent drop in clients from four years ago. She said the economy is to blame.

“We’re just riding the wave like everybody else is,” she said. “We’re in a recession, and all businesses are affected.”

Walters said if the economy is playing a role, it could be because the demographics of hunters differ from enthusiasts of other sports.

“It’s perhaps an older demographic that hunting attracts,” he said. “And, perhaps they’re more impacted by the economy than the younger demographic.”

There’s also the matter of declining interest in hunting.

According to National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1.5 million fewer people hunted in 2006 versus 1996. A survey for 2011 hasn’t been published yet.

Lee Kantar, state deer and moose biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said a decline in interest might play a role in fewer nonresident license purchases, but he believes the economy is the bigger influence.

“If you live in a state where there are hunting opportunities, are you going to pay for nonresident fees and all that when everybody’s hurting right now?” he asked. “There are a lot of great reasons to come to Maine for hunting, but these are tough times.”

It’s too soon to know how many out-of-state hunters have bought licenses for the 2011 season. That information won’t be available from the state until March.

In the meantime, Walters said he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of hunting in Maine and the role of his business.

“It may come back. It might not reach the level of four or five years ago, but I think it will improve,” he said. “For us, we’ve made the decision. We have the infrastructure, and we have the staff. We’re going to remain committed to whitetail deer hunting, and we’re going to stay open.”

Morning Sentinel Staff Writer Ben McCanna can be contacted at 861-9239 or at:

[email protected]