Maine once sat near the top of North American whitetail destinations but has fallen precipitously down the list over the last several decades. That’s due in part to a decline in the deer herd, but perhaps more so is the result of a dramatic increase in deer numbers, as well as in the number and quality of trophy class bucks across much of the whitetail’s range, outside northern New England. However, more recent trends suggest Maine deer hunters may have more company to share their misery with.

We’ve suffered through lean times lately as the state’s deer herd dwindled, the result of several factors. In the north, it’s a combination of severe winters, predation and insufficient protection of winter habitat. In the south, it’s largely an artifact of population goals based on cultural rather than biological carrying capacity. In both regions, if the means were available, the deer herd could be doubled with no deleterious impact on the habitat or the health of the herd.

I’ve been monitoring the downturn elsewhere, but my first direct experience came on a bowhunt this fall in the big buck mecca of Illinois’ Golden Triangle – Pike, Brown and Adams counties. The outfitter admitted his area had been hit hard by the EHD (epizootic hemorrhagic disease) outbreak and he estimated he may have lost as much as 40 percent of his deer herd. After five days of hunting I suspected the loss was even higher. Illinois isn’t the only region to suffer. More than a dozen states recorded significant die-offs, some so severe that deer seasons and tags were curtailed or even eliminated in areas.

The downturn in deer numbers is not just the result of disease, nor is it restricted to the U.S. I recently returned from Saskatchewan, long considered a big buck bastion. Several severe winters have taken a considerable toll on its deer herd as well. On previous trips, a slow period was when you went for an hour or more without seeing a deer. On this trip I went three days without seeing a buck. The four hunters in our group only took two bucks and the other two never even laid eyes on a shooter buck.

Two of my companions on that hunt were from North Carolina, another state that has had its share of deer woes lately. Deer biologist Dr. Charles Ruth has observed a significant decline in deer numbers and in recruitment rates there. Studies from the Southeast clearly point toward coyote predation as the main culprit, accounting for between 46 and 84 percent of all deer mortality. Considering those are southern states where winters are mild and coyotes relatively new, one can well imagine how devastating these predators are where they’re well established in northern states.

Fortunately, hope springs eternal in the whitetail’s world. They are amazingly adaptable creatures that have withstood the rigors of winter, the plight of habitat loss and the onslaught of both predators and hunting for millennia. Given proper management, sufficient protection, a respite from disease and some relief from predators, and the herds will rebuild.

Though the hunters in our Illinois camp all came up empty, we did see an encouraging number of young bucks that, in a year or two, will fall into the “shooter” category. And though I laid eyes on only one buck in Saskatchewan, I saw several does with twin fawns. Southeast hunters may have to accept reduced bag limits for a while to counteract the loss to predation. But things are looking a little better in Maine, at least on a relative scale. In time, maybe they’ll improve on an absolute scale.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]