The calendar may say February, but this year’s snowfall totals say something entirely different. Snowfall totals to date this year seem to mirror an average December, not three months of winter.

Maple tress are ready to tap, and many would say this winter is over even before it began.

“I’m guessing that this may be a record year as far as snow depths. Certainly when you look at snowfall and length of winter, this is going to be one of the five mildest winters that we have had over the past 60 years,” says Lee Kantar, Maine’s top deer biologist, who tracks winter severity and its impact on the deer population.

Kantar says that even now if we were to get a huge storm with significant snowfall, it would have little impact on deer.

“It has been an extremely easy winter for deer. Deer have been free to roam anywhere,” says Kantar.

Generally, when the snows come, deer retreat to deer yards. These large stands of coniferous trees offer protection from snow, winds and extreme temperatures while providing some food and protection from predators. This year, it has not been necessary.

“In my deer area that I monitor, there is no deer sign whatsoever where they traditionally winter. The deer can go wherever they want,” says Kantar.

With that type of freedom comes greater survival rates for deer.

“The winters of 2008 and 2009 were terrible. 2010 was fairly easy. In 2011, although the winter was bad in midseason, it turned out to be a shorter winter than normal, we had a super green-up (in spring), and we had a better than expected survival of fawns.”

Kantar said the increased yearling deer survival was reflected in the 2011 deer kill. Originally expected to be in the 16,650 range, the increased fawn survival meant more opportunities for hunters, and last fall’s deer kill is expected to be in the mid-18,000s, over 10 percent higher than expected.

“Now it looks like we are going to have a second winter in a row that is going to be mild, so really, that is tremendous help for our south and central Maine deer populations, and indeed there are other deer populations in central, northern and eastern Maine that are going to benefit this year. This winter is just going to help,” said Kantar.

However, even with the two mild winters in a row, restoring the deer population isn’t going to happen overnight. Aerial population surveys show deer populations are below objectives, even in southern and central Maine.

“When we get together next month with the regional biologists to … allocate any-deer permits, a winter like this would have us normally increasing permit allocations in southern and central management districts because we are compensating for a mild winter,” said Kantar.

“However, that being said, we conducted a few flights, and it still cautions us to be conservative with permit applications.”

In the northern part of the state, while this type of mild winter helps, it is only part of the solution.

“We are having such radical shifts in winter severity that when we get a winter like this, we are going to see a (population) bump up, and when we have a really (bad) winter with normal snow depths, we are going to see a bump down, and that is what has been playing out the past few years,” said Kantar.

“In the far north, in the situation that we have with habitat and everything else, the deer population is going to go up and down based upon winter.”

After dealing with the damaging effects of back-to-back severe winters in 2008 and 2009, this type of winter brings optimism.

“We reduced deer permits for 2011 and on top of that we get a winter that is hugely beneficial for deer, so there is no question it helps. If that doesn’t set us up in 2012 for some good things, I don’t know what can,” says Kantar.

Mark Latti is a Registered Maine Guide, and the Landowner Relations/ Recreational Access Coordinator for the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.