A new Maine law will provide $40 million over the next four years to the Land for Maine’s Future program to purchase lands with deer wintering areas as a priority. Michael Seamans/Morning Sentinel

There was a time not so long ago when northern Maine had a well-deserved reputation, not just in state but across the country, as one of the premier deer hunting destinations.

Twice in the 1950s, Maine’s annual deer harvest exceeded 40,000, and most of those deer came from the northern two-thirds of the state. That’s no longer the case. Most of the harvest now comes from the southern half. There are multiple reasons for this, but the biggest is a lack of sufficient winter habitat in northern Maine. Fortunately, steps are under way to reverse that trend and remedy the situation.

Last year, the legislature passed, and Gov. Janet Mills signed, a bill drafted by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine that will provide $40 million over the next four years to the Land for Maine’s Future program to purchase lands with deer wintering areas as a priority. The new antlerless permit program, first implemented for the fall 2022 hunt, will provide roughly another $1 million. All those funds can be matched with federal funding at a 3:1 ratio, meaning over $160 million available to purchase deer wintering habitat in northern and eastern Maine. Meanwhile, the Sportsman’s Alliance and the Aroostook County Conservation Association formed the Aroostook County White-tailed Deer Collaborative, which has already raised another $25,000 – also available for matching funds – and they’re just getting started.

These actions differ from past efforts in several ways. Rather than a bond initiative, the new state funds for deer wintering areas are an appropriation, meaning they’re already in the budget. Furthermore, purchased lands will be managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife specifically for winter deer habitat. And all those lands will be open for public access and recreation – including hunting.

Progress has already occurred. Last January, IFW hired a biologist to oversee the program for deer wintering habitats. The department also identified acquisition criteria and the highest priority deer wintering areas, and now has two projects nearing completion and several others in the pipeline. The Reed Deadwater project in southern Aroostook County consists of over 6,000 acres and is the single largest acquisition IFW has ever made.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, this initiative has received some criticism. One is the concept of the state taking land from private landowners. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The list of landowners voluntarily approaching the state and offering to sell their land specifically for this program is growing. Another criticism is that once those lands are acquired, they’re taken off the tax rolls, representing a financial impact for local communities. According to Jeff Romano of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, “Land trusts collectively in the state have conserved on the order of 2.6 million acres of land, and 95% of those are still on the tax rolls. Generally, they’re in tree growth or open space. Those programs are available to every other private landowner in the state.” Meanwhile, the state makes revenue sharing payments, equivalent to what a private landowner would be paying, to the municipalities in which public lands are located.

Changes won’t happen overnight. It will take years, even decades to realize a significant improvement, but it will happen. Meanwhile, more steps are already under way to enhance these efforts. State Sen. Russell Black has introduced a bill to extend Land for Maine’s Future funding, which is important because the process of purchasing land can take several years to complete and this will add long-term stability to the program. There’s also pending legislation to better align Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands management policy with that of IFW regarding winter deer habitat. This could influence future management on over 570,000 acres of public land currently not managed for deer wintering areas.

Largely on the strength of southern and central Maine, hunters killed in excess of 43,000 deer during the 2022 hunt. The situation there won’t likely change, but if the deer herd in northern and eastern Maine is one day restored, that total could be significantly higher, and the possibilities are staggering.

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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