A hunter searches for a whitetail deer. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

No system is perfect.

Maine’s antlerless deer permit system has been in place since 1986. The biologists who manage this valuable resource have done a more than adequate job of keeping the deer population at or near objective levels in southern and central Maine, while trying to increase the population in northern and eastern Maine in the face of winter severity, changing forest management practices and a booming predator population.

Meanwhile, deer hunters rarely agree on anything and the system is one of their favorite topics for debate. Some sit squarely in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it” camp while others – mostly those who seldom draw a permit because they live or hunt in northern regions – complain that a change is in order.

Change is inevitable, and it appears the latter group may get their way, partly because the system is no longer achieving objectives, even in southern regions. Some of the blame there lies not with the system but the hunters themselves.

There’s an adequate number of permits issued each year to potentially reach harvest goals and maintain objective levels. But the hunters aren’t doing their job. Some are eager to take the first deer that comes along, whether it sports antlers or not. However, a growing number hold onto those permits, hoping for a buck and waiting until the end of season to cash in their tags. Many wait too long.

Reasons for doing so vary. Modern hunters are much more enlightened and educated. They’ve seen the positive results of antler restrictions in other states and have adopted the “let them go so they can grow” philosophy, hoping to improve their chances of seeing and maybe bagging a bigger buck. At the same time, they understand that more does make more bucks.

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Deer populations, at least in central and southern Maine, are also at or near all-time historical highs. Careful, conservative management has brought populations back to the point where they now equal – and quite possibly exceed – historic highs. Meanwhile, human populations continue to grow, and spread out across the landscape. White-tailed deer are an extremely adaptable species and have learned how to thrive amid the trappings of humans.

It’s a natural progression that repeats itself time and time again. At first, deer are delightful, showing up at bird feeders and traipsing across the back lawn. Soon they become a nuisance, eating ornamental shrubbery and garden plants, crossing roadsides without warning and bringing with them parasites that carry potentially debilitating diseases.

Often by then it’s too late and the damage is done. The posted signs are up and hunters – who time and countless research have shown are the most effective and efficient means of controlling deer populations – are no longer welcome. Unchecked, the deer population grows along with its associated problems.

Change is already in the works. In July, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife convened a stakeholder working group to discuss and develop possible changes to the system. At a subsequent meeting they introduced a suite of proposals that will go out for public comment once refined.

Rather than a whole new system, the proposals represent some modification of the current system. Stay tuned for more details on those proposals. For example, IFW would issue antlerless permits instead of any-deer permits, anticipating higher fill rates. Applicants would be limited to fewer choices in the lottery, with the intent of increasing the likelihood applicants will apply for permits in areas they’re more likely to hunt rather than selecting areas with higher permit numbers with the intent of swapping for another area. Under the proposal, swapping and permit transfer would go away, with the possible exception of transfers to youth hunters. While the same data would be used to determine permit numbers, those numbers would likely go down to compensate for expected higher fill rates.

Perhaps the most contentious proposal is to charge a permit lottery fee and a fee for each permit won in the lottery. When the any-deer permit system was implemented back in the 1980s there was an agreement that IFW would never charge a fee. Times have changed since then. The existing system is not meeting objectives. Meanwhile, there are fees for the moose lottery and permits, fees for expanded archery permits and fees for turkey permits. Charging a fee would hopefully reduce the number of applicants that apply with little or no intent to harvest an antlerless deer and place an appropriately significant value on being able to harvest an additional deer. Funds would also go toward deer management programs like deer wintering habitat purchase and management. Times change. It’s time for a change, and time will tell what that change will be.

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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