The Make-Or-Break Season
It’s almost cruel to call Lee Kantar on a Friday afternoon in mid March, when he has an incredible assortment of numbers to crunch. But at least it gives Maine’s chief deer biologist a chance to stop calculating, if only for a few minutes, just how tough this winter has been on Maine’s deer herd.
“We have some temperatures up in the north where the mean temperature was minus 3 degrees for the month of January. That’s severe,” Kantar said.
As always, the winter can make or break Maine’s deer. The deeper the snow, the less mobility deer have and the harder they must work for food, which is not very nutritious during winter anyway. Their struggle to survive lasts until spring “green-up.”
“I think the snow depths probably are shallower this year but with deer once you get past a certain point it’s a hardship,” Kantar said. “At 18 inches you’re really restricting mobility. That’s coming up to the chest on a deer.”
As this winter began, deer were still suffering the after effects of one of the worst winters on record. State wildlife biologists have been tracking winter severity since 1950 and since 1974, they’ve been measuring snow depth, sinking depth (how deep deer tracks are in the snow) and temperature in selected deer yards around the state. At the end of the 20-week season, all the measurements are rolled into a single number, which shows just how bad the winter was for deer. Overall, the winter of 2007-2008 rated 90, making it the third most severe. But in the northernmost wildlife management districts, it climbed as high as 122.
So no one expected a great hunting season last fall and it turned out even worse than predicted. The final harvest figures will likely vary a little, but the preliminary total is 21,062, compared to nearly 29,000 in 2007, a 27-percent drop. It was the lowest deer kill since Maine’s any-deer permit system began in 1986. Not coincidentally, the low deer harvests from 1984 through 1986 were a consequence of the winter of 1981-82, which is tied for fourth (with 1976-77) on the worst winter for deer list.
Kantar already knew the impact of the 2007-08 winter would be felt for quite a while, but he was wishing – very hard – that this winter wouldn’t make things worse. “For a lot of Maine, two winters like this in a row would be absolutely and utterly devastating,” Kantar said last year at this time. “You don’t want to imagine that.”
He’s now analyzing the harvest and the winter severity data to see exactly how this winter rates, but it looks like he didn’t get his wish.
“I think we’re going to have fairly moderate to high numbers,” Kantar said. “It’s going to be a rugged one . . . The plus side for this winter if you want to say such a thing is that this last couple of weeks has been beneficial for us. In a lot of areas, including north and west of here (Bangor), we’ve lost snow, so that can only help.”
Yet though the deer up north and Down East are certainly struggling, the deer in southern and central Maine’s wildlife management districts are OK, Kantar said. Not counting Maine’s islands (District 29), the populations in 13 of Maine’s 28 WMDs “are at, near or above,” the population goals set by IFW’s Big Game Working Group.
“Those populations are still doing well even after a severe winter,” Kantar said.
Last spring, Kantar tried to insure more does would survive the hunting season by issuing only 51,125 any-deer permits, the lowest total since 1992. The department mandated “bucks only” hunting in 18 wildlife management districts, and, for the first time, even Youth Day hunters and October archers in those districts could only hunt bucks.
Still, the harvest dropped more than he expected and compared to 2007, declines stretched across the board:
• Youth hunters got 510 deer, down 52 percent.
• Archers got 22 percent fewer deer (1755).
• Muzzleloaders harvested 1,137 deer, a 42 percent decline.
• Modern firearms users harvested 17,652 deer, down 25 percent.
Fawns, from both 2007 and 2008, clearly took the biggest hit from the harsh winter, Kantar said. Many of the 2007 fawns didn’t survive the winter, while the does that did make it weren’t in good shape so their 2008 fawns often were underweight and fewer lived until last fall. In 2008, just hunters killed just 7497 antlerless deer, including 5,154 adult does, compared to 12,822 antlerless deer, including 8,480 adult does, in 2007. The number of bucks killed also dropped, from 16,103 to 13,654.
“The fawns certainly did not show up in the 2008 harvest,” Kantar said. “Was the decrease in the does killed because they weren’t there or because someone had another opportunity on a buck?” Kantar said. “One of the things I’ll be doing is to take all of those any-deer permit holders and see how many of them killed a buck, killed an antlerless deer or didn’t kill anything.”
The outlook for Maine’s deer and deer hunters won’t be clear until the statistics are analyzed and the discussion with regional biologists is completed. Even after March 25, the any-deer permit recommendations may have to be revised depending on when and how the winter ends. About the only things safe to say now is that the districts that were bucks-only last year will likely be bucks-only this year, Kantar says, and that some any-deer permits will be available in the other districts.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that despite a tough winter all around, there still are adult does out there that are giving birth to fawns that are still surviving,” Kantar said. “So that means there are still going to be permits out there, even if this second winter in a row turns out to be pretty bad.”