Maine state biologists are proposing a record number of any-deer permits – as many as 153,910 – to try to cull the deer population, especially along the coast and in the central part of the state. Kennebec Journal photo

State biologists have proposed increasing any-deer permits by 40 percent this fall in an effort to reduce the population in parts of Maine where there are high levels of Lyme disease and public complaints about too many deer.

The 153,910 permits would dwarf last year’s total of 109,990, which was an all-time high. If the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s Advisory Council approves the proposal in June, it would be the third time in four years the state has issued a record number of any-deer permits. It would also be a 56 percent increase from two years ago.

State Deer Biologist Nathan Bieber, in his address to the IFW Advisory Council Tuesday, called the proposed increase “a very historically large number” aimed at achieving a doe-harvest goal of 15,187.

Any-deer permits allow hunters to harvest deer without antlers, primarily female deer, because culling the does helps shrink deer populations.

The total deer harvest in 2020 was 33,159, but only 9,116 does were killed by hunters with any-deer permits – 31 percent short of the state’s doe-harvest goal of 13,135. 

In the southern and central hunting districts – a part of Maine Bieber called the “breadbasket for deer in Maine” – the doe harvest was 39 percent below objective. Only once in the past 10 years, in 2018, have state biologists achieved their doe-harvest goal, Bieber said.

As a result, IFW is proposing large increases in permits in the 11 hunting districts extending from Kittery up the coast to Mount Desert Island and inland through central Maine – from Fryeburg to Jay, Bingham and Old Town. The area also includes coastal islands southwest of Bar Harbor.

When IFW released its Big Game Management Plan in 2018 – the first in 17 years – it incorporated more feedback from Maine residents than ever before. The public directed IFW to manage deer at levels that would provide opportunities for both viewing and hunting, but at a threshold that would minimize deer-vehicle collisions and the public health impacts of tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease.

Maine has the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the nation, largely because deer ticks are prevalent in Maine, particularly in southern Maine, along the coast and on the islands, where deer populations are most dense.

In 2019, state biologists estimated Maine’s deer population at 230,000 to 250,000. Today, Bieber said, the population is likely 280,000 to 300,000, although state biologists don’t devote many resources toward determining deer numbers statewide.

Instead, Bieber said, Maine biologists rely more on the buck-kill index (or the number of bucks killed per 100 square miles of deer habitat) to determine whether the deer population is increasing or shrinking. And for the past 10 years, that number has been mostly increasing: from 45 in 2011 to 66 in 2020. In 2019, that number was 70, the highest in the past decade, according to IFW.

Bieber said the doe harvest often falls short of targets because hunters usually prefer to shoot a buck, if given the chance, rather than use their any-deer permit, also called a doe tag. 

Bieber told the advisory council that because increasing any-deer permits has fallen far short of doe-harvest goals, other methods will be considered. This spring, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife asked IFW to convene a working group to consider alternative methods of achieving doe-harvest goals. The working group, which will include IFW staff and the public, will report back to the Legislature.

Bieber expects the working group may look at such things as different permit types, bag limits and season changes. “Everything is on the table,” he said.

“We want to look at some systems that will work better for us in the future,” Bieber told the advisory council. “The (any-deer permit) system has outlived its usefulness. In some of the districts it’s working, but in some it’s not adequately getting us where we want to be in terms of the doe harvest. We’re going to explore other methods … and hopefully in the next few years, we will make meaningful changes that will help us.”

A virtual public hearing on the proposed any-deer permits will be held at 4 p.m. on June 1.

Also in Tuesday’s virtual advisory council meeting, the council approved the moose permit allocations of 3,480 for the fall hunt by a vote of 7-0. The council also unanimously approved the new adaptive moose hunt in northwestern Maine (Wildlife Management District 4) that biologists hope will determine whether lowering moose densities can reduce winter tick infestation.

Moose permit applications are due May 13 for the June 12 lottery that will be held virtually again this year.

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