Deer hunters walk through a cornfield in Freedom in this photo from 10 years ago, when the numbers of hunters and deer were much higher.
A significant decline in hunters coming to Maine from other states is having a far-reaching economic impact, from state agencies to small businesses in rural areas.
While sales of hunting licenses rise nationally, the decline in Maine is causing a loss of revenue for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and income for sporting camps and hunting guides.
It also is cutting into business in rural towns where traditional outdoor sports are an integral part of the culture and economy.
Sportsmen, guides, lawmakers and officials in the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife point to the struggling deer herd as the reason for the drop in license sales.
Last year, 9,000 fewer out-of-state hunters came to Maine than five years ago, when 35,301 non-residents bought licenses here, according to the department. That year, non-residents accounted for 17 percent of Maine's 209,284 licensed hunters, according to the state.
Hunters help to bring as much as $241 million to Maine, including $30 million from non-resident hunters, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The decline in out-of-state hunters caused a loss of $1.2 million in license fees for the state from 2006 through 2011, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Bob Kwap of Bridgeton, N.J., who came to hunt here for many of the past 40 years, stopped traveling to northern Maine to hunt when he stopped seeing deer. The trips to Fish River Lodge on Eagle Lake stopped for him and his hunting party, and turned into hunting trips to Pennsylvania.
"We don't care if we get a deer, but you want to see deer or at least deer tracks. Seems like they weren't there anymore," Kwap said. "We don't know the reasons why. But now we go to Pennsylvania. They're not big deer like up in Maine, but at least you see deer during the week."
GUIDES, SPORTING CAMPS FEEL THE PINCH
The economic impact from the loss of hunters like Kwap has been felt across northern Maine.
Guides such as Tenley Bennett, who owns Fish River Lodge at the northern tip of Maine, say the deer herd's decline four years ago caused a dramatic drop in out-of-state hunters booking trips.
"The last time we had 40 hunters in camp was in 2007. Now we're down to six," Bennett said. "The loss happened so fast. They came from as far away as Pennsylvania and spent money on lodging, meals, licenses, gas and guiding. But they came and weren't seeing deer. ... Now, I'm seeing sporting camps in decline. Most of them are on the market."
For guides statewide, the loss of deer in Maine is costly.
"There is a lot of frustration in the industry," said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. "The guides sort of feel abandoned. It's a competitive market. ... When you don't have deer, that's problematic."
In some instances, guides are simply out of work during deer season.
Igor Sikorsky at The Bradford Camps in the North Maine Woods said the decline in non-resident deer hunters last year led him to close in November for the first time in 17 years. This year he will close early again and lay off workers in November.
"I can't stay open for four hunters," Sikorsky said. "We closed last year for the first time in our history just because the number of hunters have dwindled. Most of our deer hunters are from out of state, because resident deer hunters tend to go to their own camps."
DRAMATIC DROP IN DEER HARVEST
While Maine is losing out-of-state hunters, license sales have risen 9 percent nationally in the past six years, according a survey released this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last year, 13.7 million people bought hunting licenses, according to the service. On average, those hunters spent $2,484.
Hunting license sales also are up among Maine residents, with 4,000 more Maine hunters in the field last year than five years ago, when 173,667 hunting licenses were sold to residents.
Nonetheless, more hunters from away are staying away, causing many to worry about the dwindling deer herd's impact on much-needed eco-tourism dollars.
Maine's deer harvest dropped dramatically in the past eight years, from 31,000 to 19,000.
Steve Rand, president of the 460-member North Berwick Rod and Gun Club, said there is ample game in southern Maine, but not up north, where the big whitetails roam.
There, Rand said, the herd has been decimated, making a hunt in northern Maine less attractive.
"My dad lived for years in Patten, and there are some big deer up there. But the population has been hurt with the loss of winter feed and coyote predation being pretty high," Rand said.
MONEY ALLOCATED TO FIX PROBLEM
It's a problem that lawmakers and state officials hope to solve. Sen. Tom Martin, R-Benton, co-chair of the Legislature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee, said the Legislature recognized the dire situation and appropriated $100,000 for Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to fix the problem in 2013.
"Bringing the harvest numbers back will be a big boon," Martin said. "I've never hunted down south, but I understand it's like shooting fish in a barrel. The deer in southern Maine are more like a rodent. They're not very big. Up here, the whitetail deer are prized, they're 200-plus-pound deer. But what I hear from guides and wardens is out-of-staters don't want to come up here for nothing."
The Legislature's $100,000 allocation was made to help monitor deer yards and dispatch trappers to control coyote numbers in those yards, to give deer a better chance of surviving the winter without falling prey to coyotes.
Last winter, the department spent $15,500 from its own budget to decrease the number of coyotes in deer yards, said Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, who has vowed to grow Maine's deer herd.
He said more will be done.
"I would be hopeful that with the combined efforts, we will help the deer herd. We're managing for that product, for a bigger deer herd," Woodcock said. "Deer are advantageous to the people of the state for a variety of reasons, but ... in the northern part of the state, where the economy is driven by outdoor activity, the deer herd is not where it should be. We're working on it."
For out-of-state hunters like Kwap of New Jersey, a robust Maine deer herd up north would be a big draw.
"I would absolutely go back to Maine if the deer came back. I'd much rather go up there, where you don't have the population of hunters, like in Pennsylvania," Kwap said. "When you go to Maine, you might not see anyone for a whole day."
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:
Bob Kwap, a deer hunter from Bridgeton, N.J., says he had been coming up to Maine for the past four decades, but because the state’s herd had dwindled in recent years, he now travels to Pennsylvania to hunt. “They’re not big deer like up in Maine,” he said, “but at least you see deer during the week.”