Poet John Lydgate is credited with a famous quote that ends: “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

Perhaps nowhere is that more applicable than with deer management. State biologists, tasked with managing a public resource, must consider a broad array of biological, social and political factors, and special interest groups, which virtually guarantees they’re going to displease many people. Still, they do their best.

To better understand and appreciate their daunting tasks, think of our deer herd as a crop, a renewable natural resource that if properly managed will indefinitely produce a harvestable surplus. Biologists refer to this concept as “sustained yield,” with several levels.

Maximum sustained yield (MSY) refers to the maximum number of deer that can be removed from the population on a sustained basis. To achieve MSY, the population should be maintained at around 50 percent of the “carrying capacity,” – the number of deer the land can support indefinitely without harm to the habitat or the population.

But according to whitetail expert Dr. James C. Kroll, MSY is very difficult to achieve under legal hunting conditions. He recommends optimum sustained yield, which occurs at about 60 to 70 percent of carrying capacity and best maximizes deer harvest and hunter satisfaction by providing more deer for harvest and for viewing.

If state biologists were managing deer in the most biologically responsible way, while also providing maximum benefit to their primary constituents, they would choose one of the above. But you’re not going to get either; not even close.

Though deer are a renewable resource and hunters are footing the bill for their management, your say is limited because their presence also affects the non-hunting public and other renewable resources on the land. People who grow crops or trees may view deer as a source of recreation for one month a year but consider them a pest and a nuisance otherwise. If their numbers get too high, deer also represent a risk to human health and safety through car collisions and Lyme disease.

As a result, biologists must also factor the concerns of special interest groups and municipal officials, and the influence of state legislators into their population objectives. And yes, they even need to consider things like damage to ornamental shrubbery on private land that is closed to hunting.

Instead of biological carrying capacity, their management objective becomes an artificial concept called “cultural carrying capacity” – not what a healthy environment can indefinitely sustain but what the non-hunting public will tolerate. It’s considerably lower than the biological level, and indications are that the present planning process is calling for an even lower deer population. This applies largely to southern and central Maine, where politics and permits are the greatest obstacle to increasing the deer herd.

In northern and Downeast Maine, deer populations are well below any management objectives. The principal limiting factors – excessive predation and inadequate protection of winter habitat – present their problems. Managing winter habitat on private land may conflict with landowner’s rights, and predator control always stirs ire, even when it provides an ecological benefit.

All of the above considers the deer hunting community as a single entity, but within that community is further disagreement about deer management.

Some folks, interested principally in a positive experience and putting venison on the table, would rather see more deer to shoot, regardless of their sex or age. Others, who are part of the growing hunter-manager-steward camp, favor concepts like antler point restrictions that would lead to more natural age and sex ratios within the deer population, and more older and bigger bucks to shoot.

Some folks would like to see more any-deer permits, particularly for youth hunters, not realizing that would only lead to a lower deer population and fewer permits down the line.

And so it goes. Deer hunters debate with one another. Farmers and foresters lobby their legislators while suburbanites and insurance adjusters exert their influence.

In the middle stand the biologists, trying to carry out their biological mandate, simultaneously acting as referees and trying to please as many people as possible. In the end, they often fail to fully satisfy any particular group, which is a shame. Then again, there’s another adage that says, “If everyone’s mad at you, you must be doing something right.”

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

[email protected]


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