December 26, 2010

Hunting: Problems of northern deer getting attention

By BOB HUMPHREY

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

click image to enlarge

Deer in Maine, such as these in a yard north of Greenville, face dwindling habitat and predation by bears and coyotes. A recent workshop in Augusta sought to create a comprehensive initiative to reverse the decline in the deer herd.

Staff file photo

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.

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