Demise of Maine’s Deer Damages Our Economy
The deer hunting season was a disappointment for hunters and a disaster for the outdoor industry.
Deer have disappeared from the North Woods and their numbers in central Maine are greatly diminished. The implication is severe for sporting camps, guides, butchers, taxidermists, motels, gas stations, and all others who benefit from the spending of deer hunters. I saw a look of desperation in the eye of a third-generation owner of one of Maine’s finest sporting camps who wondered if his son — the fourth generation — would be able to keep the family business going.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will also take a revenue hit from the decision of nonresident deer hunters to hunt elsewhere this year. Those hunters may never come back.
This is a serious problem for IF&W because its primary hunting constituency is deer hunters. Although the number of deer hunters (resident and nonresident) has declined by about 50,000 since the early 1980s, they still number about 170,000. No other constituency of hunters comes close to that. There are about 50,000 grouse hunters, and all other game animals attract less than 20,000 hunters.
I believe turkey hunting is the most exciting hunting opportunity the state now offers, but the number of turkey hunters is declining, totaling only about 18,000 this year.
In 2007, IF&W raised $3,197,730 from the sale of nonresident big game and hunt/fish combination licenses. Any significant loss of nonresident hunters really hurts this already under-funded agency.
The causes of the diminished population of deer are these:
1. Two back-to-back very tough winters;
2. Insufficient deer wintering yards and habitat;
3. Predation by bears and coyotes.
Let’s look at the north country first. Sporting camp owners, guides, and outfitters tell me the number of deer hunters they booked this season were down by as much as 90 percent. One camp owner who has booked a group of forty-five Pennsylvania hunters for a number of years saw the group’s number dwindle to just nine this year. None of the nine got a deer. I received an angry e-mail from the owner of a New York business who booked a deer hunt with one of Maine’s best-known guides and outfitters, saw nary a deer track in two days of hunting, and went home early. He felt he’d been misled by the outfitter into thinking there were actually deer in that area of the state.
North Maine Woods, a three million-acre forest with gated access, welcomed 35 percent of their annual visitors in the month of November in the 1980s, according to NMW manager Al Cowperthwaite. This year it will be about 15 percent.
A total of 5,500 deer hunting parties entered North Maine Woods this past November. They brought out less than 100 deer. Only one in fifty-five hunting parties was successful, taking one deer per 35,000 acres. Maine once advertised that a nonresident’s chance of getting a deer in Maine was better than 55 percent. Today they don’t have a 55 percent chance of even seeing a deer track.
At some northern Maine game registration stations, more bear than deer or moose were tagged. For example, the Fish River station registered forty-seven bears, twenty-three moose, and just four deer. The Portage station tagged ninety-two deer in 2007, thirty-one deer in 2008, but only nine deer this year.
The discouragement is not limited to nonresident hunters. In the Mount Vernon area where I hunt, the deer population may be down by 50 percent or more. For only the second time in thirty years, I failed to put my tag on a deer. I didn’t even see a deer!
That may change this week, as I finally get a chance to hunt on snow with my muzzleloader. The special muzzle loading season concludes on Saturday.
But here are a few of the many comments I received from residents following the end of November’s firearms deer season:
“After spending the whole season in the woods, I can also say I have never seen as little deer sign as this fall in my lifetime.” The comments of a fellow who has been a registered guide for thirty-five years and is the owner of a well-known sporting lodge opened in 1926 by his grandfather.
“After hunting on my lands in Madison and Solon forty-two times in 2007 and twenty-five times in 2008 for a sighting of one deer, I have toned down my hunting efforts to two outings this year. I am writing this on Thanksgiving morning in 2009 because for the first time since 1964 I am not hunting on this holiday due to total frustration.”
“My food plots cost me roughly $3,000 to maintain per year and this year I never saw a deer in them. I own 370 acres in Zone 14.”
A surprising number of Mainers wrote to tell me about their excellent deer hunting experiences in other states, including New York, Pennsylvania, and even Kansas, plus Quebec and other Canadian provinces.
“I go to Kansas each year for two weeks… an incredible experience. (I hunt) 100 percent on public lands…. See bucks every day all day long. I heard from many of my gun-toting (Maine) friends who saw nothing out there. In the meantime I was in Kansas seeing little, medium, big and heart-stopping bucks.”
Last Thursday, IF&W’s Deer Task Force met and discussed this dire situation. You can read a full report of the day’s meeting on my blog for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
Bottom line: there are no simple solutions. In the southern half of the state, a mild winter could bring back the deer numbers fairly quickly, particularly if we get serious about limiting predation and protecting deer yards. But up north, former IF&W Commissioner Bucky Owen may have been right when he told me not long ago that “deer hunting in the North Woods is all over.”