Dismal Deer Harvest Marks 2008
George Smith’s deer hunting season ended on opening day – and now he’s glad it did.
“Guess I was lucky to get a deer,” said Smith, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “Didn't realize it the first day of the season when I shot it, but it was a nice 162-pound buck so I figured I'd better fire away.”
To no one’s surprise, most of Maine’s 170,000 deer hunters weren’t so lucky. Last winter was the third most severe for deer since the state wildlife biologists started keeping such records in 1950. So it was only a question of how bad this hunting season would be. And it seems to have been as bad as expected. Maybe worse.
“I am afraid deer hunting in the north woods is all over, at least for the rest of my lifetime,” Smith said. “They had just two deer per square mile before last winter, when I didn't think things could get any worse. But they have.”
You can see the statewide picture pretty clearly just from the newspaper headlines: “The deer aren't there.” “Many hunters coming up short.” “Winter more deadly than hunters.” and “Deer season proves as difficult as originally feared.”
The preliminary statewide harvest won’t be reported until later this month. But many doubt Maine will reach the predicted deer kill of 24,000, which would already have been down 5,000 from 2007. Some seasoned hunters think a statewide harvest closer to 18,000 is likely. If so, it would be the lowest in 27 years, since the season after the worst winter in IFW records. The 1971 deer kill was 18,903, lowest since 1934, and that total came with the last week of the season cancelled “in the best interests of Maine’s sportsmen.”
This time, the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department started last spring to mitigate the winter’s impact by insuring more does would survive the hunting season. Any-deer permits were reduced by 22 percent, to 51,125, the lowest total since 1992. The department mandated “bucks only” hunting in the 18 hardest-hit wildlife management districts.
The winter impact has been noticeable in southern and central areas, but not huge. For example, with one week left in the muzzle-loading season in southern Maine, Sawyer’s Variety in Gorham had tagged 327 deer, down about 20 percent from last year.
“Central and southern Maine have the ability to bounce back rather quickly,” said Lee Kantar, IFW’s deer specialist.
The story changes the further north you go. Warden Mike Favreau found 68 deer had been tagged at Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville last week, compared to 100 last year. In Rockwood, 33 deer were registered, down from 78 in 2007.
“You can drive for miles and not see a deer track,” Favreau said.
At Gateway Variety in Ashland last year, Dennis Beaulier tagged only 113 deer, the second lowest number in the 15 years he’s owned the store. This fall, he tagged just 49.
“Something’s got to be done,” Beaulier said, such as feeding deer in winter and getting rid of more coyotes. SAM’s Smith agrees that measures mandated to protect lynx are allowing coyotes to thrive, saying “The failure to protect deer from coyote predation for the last five years was disastrous.”
(After a lynx death in November, a federal judge in Bangor ruled IFW must act immediately to further prevent lynx from accessing conibear traps. IFW’s Advisory Council last week adopted an emergency rule regarding the placement of conibear traps to protect lynx, a federally threatened species.”)
The coyote debate, while fierce, is still only a sidebar to the main story: the winter. For Kantar, the reports from the field held no surprises. “I expected people to see less deer. I expected to see more mature deer in the harvest. And I expected to see more bucks harvested than in other years,” he said.
Although yearlings usually make up the bulk of the harvest, Kantar expected to see fewer because the 2007 fawns would have had trouble surviving the past winter. He also expected to see fewer 2008 fawns survive, because more does would have been in poor condition and likely to give birth to underweight fawns.
“Adult does didn’t do well, their fawns this year didn’t do well and the yearlings from last year didn’t do well,” Kantar said. “So you’re not seeing those groups out there on the landscape because of this lower survival.”
It once was thought that bucks were less likely to survive winter than does, because their condition was poor after the rut. But that perspective is changing, he said, thanks to research in New Brunswick and additional studies in the southern United States.
“It’s turning out that adult bucks are not breeding as many females as we once thought and that the younger guys are getting in on the breeding as well,” Kantar said. “There’s much more of a mix of who is doing the breeding. So that would support the fact that these big old bucks are not getting all completely rutted out and worn to nothing as they go into winter.”
The last variable is the most difficult to predict — hunter effort. It depends a lot on weather and optimism. If hunters don’t hear about or see signs that deer are out there, they may just sit out the season.
“I think we had a really good opening day across the board as far as weather was concerned,” Kantar said. “But what’s a good day of weather for hunting? Some people would say they’d like to go out in the rain and most of us would think, ‘Nah, I’m not to into that.’”
In the end, it’s the detailed harvest statistics that will answer questions about last winter’s impact and Kantar won’t have them analyzed until next spring. So right now, there’s just one thing that anyone worried about Maine’s deer can do.
“We can all hope that this winter will be a lot more moderate than last winter,” Kantar said.
Roberta Scruggs has been writing about Maine's environment for more than two decades.