SOLON — He might be only 33 years old and in his first job as a head deer biologist, but Kyle Ravana is already winning over a tough crowd.
Ravana has some different ideas about how to preserve and grow Maine’s deer herd, yet he isn’t just sitting behind a desk crunching numbers. Ravana comes from Baranof Island, a remote, rugged strip of land in Alaska that is 20 miles wide, 120 miles long and has one major paved road. He already has shown an ability to get out to talk with sportsmen – and, maybe more important, to listen to them.
Ravana, a lifelong hunter, was hired as Maine’s head deer biologist seven months ago. He wants to focus on the health of the herd rather than on geographic deer densities. In doing so, he hopes to improve the state’s deer herd while meeting the needs of sportsmen from Caribou to Kittery.
Ravana is Maine’s first new state deer biologist since 2005 and he wants to win over the trust of Maine’s 200,000 hunters. He brings some different ideas to one of the most high-profile wildlife management positions in Maine, which paid a little more than $50,000 in 2012.
It’s a job that will be demanding because that’s the way sportsmen are here. Maine hunters want a robust deer herd to hunt. And biologists can’t control some factors that hurt deer numbers, such as severe winters, the loss of habitat on private land and coyote predation.
Ravana starts his new post as the deer herd is rebounding, and he’s making a good impression on a vocal group.
To Maine sportsmen, managing the state’s whitetail deer herd is a bit like managing the Red Sox. Deer hunters here want a winning season every year.
“Just about everybody becomes an expert in deer management if they hunt deer here,” said George Matula, a Unity College professor who helped create Maine’s any-deer permit system when he worked with the state 30 years ago.
“Of course, deer is kind of a premier species as far as Maine residents are concerned. And they all have ideas on how it should be done. And then if things go wrong, that guy is kind of a lightning rod for criticism, even though it may not totally be his fault. It can make it tough.”
TALKING TO THE HUNTERS
But hunter Floyd Whitmore liked what he saw in Kyle Ravana last month during the moose hunt. When Whitmore pulled his pickup truck into the deer tagging station on U.S. Route 201 in Solon, the 75-year-old sportsman wanted to ask about the doe tag he had won in the any-deer lottery. And he wanted someone he could look in the face and ask.
Ravana couldn’t give Whitmore an any-deer permit in a hunting district closer to the man’s Norridgewock home. But Ravana listened and talked to him about the health of the herd.
Whitmore appreciated the no-nonsense treatment from the young biologist, and came away a fan. At this point in Maine’s hunting history, the young, first-time state deer biologist can use them.
On Oct. 18, Ravana went to Presque Isle and addressed the 200-member Aroostook County Conservation Association to share his ideas for managing Maine’s deer herd.
Sportsmen there say it was a step in the right direction.
“I was very impressed. He’s aggressive. He wants to help,” said Jerry McLaughlin, who founded the association to help the northern Maine herd. “He’s young, but he’s aggressive, not like these guys sitting behind desks who get in a comfort zone. This new guy, he’s hot-blooded, that’s what we need. I think he’s working for us.”
A hunter and contractor, McLaughlin said he found in Ravana a knowledgeable hunter and a biologist who understands sportsmen.
And even those who have yet to meet Ravana seem hopeful.
“He has a real opportunity here. It is a unique and extraordinary opportunity this young man has, and it’s up to him. Can you imagine having the opportunity to manage the whitetail deer in a state like Maine?” said Nick Archer, vice president of the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club.
For his part, Ravana believes he can do the job, and do it well.
And if the former king crab fisherman knows one thing related to being a state wildlife biologist, it’s hard work.
“I think sportsmen are very passionate. And I’m very passionate. All hunters want more opportunity. I’m happy to be in the position to help,” Ravana said.
HEALTH, NOT NUMBERS
A nontraditional student, Ravana started undergraduate school in 2006 after working as a carpenter and commercial fisherman out of high school. He is finishing a master’s in wildlife science at the University of Maine, where he received his undergraduate degree.
After working as a fisheries biologist for the Alaska Fish and Game Department, and doing a year of contract work for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Ravana got the state deer biologist job.
Ravana said his youth, energy, background and interest in the subject are strengths. He grew up hunting Sitka deer, a subspecies of mule deer, in the mountain region of Baranof Island.
“Any job has a learning curve. My philosophy on deer is to move toward a more specific density goal. I would like to use a new system of managing for the health of the deer, rather than how many there are per square mile. That number doesn’t tell you if the deer are healthy,” Ravana said.
As it turns out, the department realized after trying an aerial survey of deer during the past few winters that it yields poor results, said Wally Jakubus, mammal group leader for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Jakubus said the surveys done in helicopters have proven successful in tracking moose, but aren’t as successful with deer, and new ways to manage the statewide herd are needed.
Moreover, in 2015 a public working group will convene and give the department new objectives for managing Maine’s deer herd, and decide whether there are too many on the landscape or too few. Ravana hopes to meet these objectives by using statistics on deer health rather than density.
“When we hire a deer biologist a big part of our decision on who we hire is how well that person relates to the public in general, and how well they explain complicated problems,” Jakubus said.
“You can know all you know about whitetail deer, but if you can’t apply that to dealing with people, you only have part of what you need to do the job well,” said Archer with the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club.
Maine moose biologist Lee Kantar, whom Ravana replaced as deer biologist, said Ravana is taking the position at a good time. Kantar managed both moose and deer.
“Kyle couldn’t be coming in under better circumstances. The deer are doing well. This is not 2008,” Kantar said. “We just had four below-average winters for deer up north.”
In 2008 and 2009 Maine’s deer got hammered with long, hard winters. Since then, the numbers of deer in northern Maine dwindled, but Kantar said they appear to be coming back.
And statewide, last year’s buck harvest was the highest in years, with at least one northern Maine hunting district registering 203 bucks, the most since 1963 in wildlife management district 3, at the north end of Aroostook County.
Still, the department estimates there are only a few deer per square mile in northern Maine.
“To sportsmen, the whitetail deer is an iconic animal,” said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “When you think of Maine hunting, you think of whitetail deer as the big-trophy animal. It’s been a part of the economy and has been the foundation of hunting in Maine for 70 years.”
There are roughly 175,000 active deer hunters out of 200,000 license holders, according to the state.
Jakubus said officials at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had no reservations about Ravana.
“We felt he could do the job, and do it well,” Jakubus said. “Kyle is a good communicator. I also think he’s very bright, he picks things up quickly. And he is an extremely hard worker. We want to try to help him be as successful as possible.”
Matula describes deer management in Maine as a pie that has only so many pieces, and everyone wants a piece of that pie. Whether hunters favor a youth hunt, bow hunt, muzzle-loader hunt or the regular firearm hunt, everyone wants a piece.
“If you want a slice for something else, it has to come out of somewhere in that pie. And there’s the rub,” Matula said.
But he said deer management is not an exact science, even though sportsmen want specific results.
And like almost everything, it comes down to money.
“In recent years we’ve realized there are some weaknesses. Sometimes, you do the best you can with the money you have. The question is, is there a better way to do it? But sometimes it takes research to find that out, and a lot of times those are the first dollars to get cut,” Matula said.
Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at: