WEST FORKS — Call it luck. Or maybe it’s back-to-back mild winters a few years ago after several brutal ones. Maybe it’s the large, organized coyote kill. Or the local deer-feeding program. Or a change in forest practices.

Maybe it’s all of the above, but one thing appears to be true: The deer herd in The Forks region, where the Kennebec River meets the Dead River in northern Somerset County, appears to be rebounding, locals say.

The rebound is not only in deer numbers, but also in an increase of mature, big deer.

With the return of mature deer – big bucks – the region could be poised for an economic four-season rebound as well.

Shane and Rachel Crommett, who opened 15 Mile Stream Lodge and Outfitters in West Forks in 2009, say hunters last week bagged six bucks each weighing in excess of 200 pounds.

“This is definitely going to bring a few hunters back up here – it already has,” Shane Crommett said Wednesday, three days before Saturday’s end of the regular firearms season for hunting deer. “People are seeing Facebook and stuff, and it’s brought quite a few hunters back up this way, which is good for all businesses and good for the area.”

Crommett said seeing maturing deer in recent years – deer that were 3 or 4 years old at the time – he knew there was a turnaround underway in the overall deer population. Mature 5-year-old deer can more easily survive a harsh winter and produce offspring. There are no any-deer permits – which allow does and bucks with antlers less than 3 inches – issued in the area. Since hunters can only shoot antlered deer, that also adds to the growing population.

Crommett said the overall deer herd has increased since the harsh winters of 2006 through 2009.

“It just worked out. You’ve got to have luck, too,” he said. “I knew it was coming because they’ve been increasing every year. The older deer are breeding again, reproducing a stronger, healthier deer, absolutely.”

He said the six bucks shot by hunters last week all made the “biggest bucks in Maine” club, and each hunter got a patch acknowledging that.

Over the past six winters, hunters from his lodge have killed more than 300 coyotes, which Crommett said has had a positive impact on the deer herd.

Crommett added that a change in forest cutting practices also has left more feed for the deer population. He said there appears to be more selective cutting of trees, rather than hard-hitting, mechanical clear cuts of years past, and he is finding deer a lot farther out into the woods than in previous years.

GOOD SIGNS

Kyle Ravana, a state deer biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said the numbers for the 2015 season are not complete, but generally it looks like it has been a good year for deer hunting.

Shane and Rachel Crommett, who own 15 Mile Stream Lodge in The Forks, say the harvest of big bucks in the area means good things for their business and the local economy.

Shane and Rachel Crommett, who own 15 Mile Stream Lodge in The Forks, say the harvest of big bucks in the area means good things for their business and the local economy. Contributed photo

“I have heard a mixed bag of reviews so far, but generally the word has had an overall good tone to it,” Ravana said. “I have talked to hunters who have said that they are seeing a lot of good buck sign in the woods, a lot of does with fawns, and that the deer they do see are looking healthy.”

Conversely, he said, some meat cutters believe the numbers appear to be down.

The department decreased permit allocations by 23 percent this season from the 2014 season. A decrease in permit allocations leads to a decrease in the deer harvest and also can have an impact on the number of hunters who take to the woods, Ravana said.

The department issued 28,770 any-deer permits, which allow a hunter to take does or antlerless deer. That number is down from 37,185 any-deer permits last year.

The deer population before hunting season started was estimated at around 210,000. The department said the reduction in permits for 2015 will allow more breeding female deer in the population, allowing the herd to rebound more quickly from last year’s severe winter.

Last year hunters killed 22,490 deer. Of those, 15,986 were bucks and 6,504 were antlerless deer, which include does and bucks that have antlers of less than 3 inches.

FOUR-SEASON GOAL

Brandon Berry, at Berry’s General Store in West Forks, which is a deer tagging station, said by early afternoon Friday the store had tagged 59 deer, 13 of which were bucks weighing more than 200 pounds. By this date last year, they’d tagged 62 with five weighing more than 200 pounds.

“I think the last few years the population of deer has taken an upturn for the better finally,” Berry said. “We went through quite a few years when it was noticeably down. It’s been well over 10 years now that we’ve had no doe permits at all in this area, which helps the population.”

Berry said the goal for survival in his area is establishing The Forks region as a four-season destination for hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and whitewater rafting.

Berry said a deer grain-feeding program begun by his father, Gordon Berry, about 15 years ago and later financed by the local fish and game club also is showing a positive impact. He said at the peak of winter, 150 deer get fed every night. He said Three Rivers across the river in The Forks also participates in the deer-feeding program, also funded by the local fish and game club and in part by West Forks and through local taxes.

“The deer need all the help they can get in the winter up here,” he said. “I think that helps.”

Chuck Hulsey, a regional wildlife biologist at the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office in Strong, said the department opposes deer-feeding programs, largely because of their proximity to busy roads, such as U.S. Route 201 through The Forks and West Forks.

“Our position is that it kills far more deer than it saves because it draws the deer next to the road,” Hulsey said. “We feel it is harmful because there are so many deer killed on Route 201 in that area.”

Brandon Berry on Wednesday said the program keeps the deer all on one side of the road, and roadkill numbers are down since the program started.