Rough last winter may make deer hunt harder

Posted Oct. 31, 2008, at 9:54 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

For the past several months — ever since the snow began falling in Maine last winter and never seemed to let up — many of the state’s deer hunters have been asking the same question.

What happens in November?

Deer fared poorly during the harsh winter that was, and according to some estimates, nearly 30 percent of the deer herd in extreme northern areas likely died during the winter.

Now, it’s finally November. Today is opening day of firearms season on deer. Thousands of Mainers will rise early, fill their bellies with grub and head into the woods in search of a buck or doe.

Chances are good that they’re still asking the same question.

Just figure: Each year, nearly 200,000 hunters head into the woods. On average, about 28,700 deer have been shot each year for the past 20 years.

That means that most years, most of us come up empty. We know that. We accept it. Then, we wait for 11 months, trying all the while to figure out a way to change our luck.

Now, we’re facing a season that comes after one of the state’s worst winters ever.

What happens in November?

We’ll soon find out.

Lee Kantar, the top deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, said deer hunters won’t get around one basic fact this season.

“The bottom line here is, as we’ve talked about many times, we had a very rough winter, one of the worst in the last 58 years,” Kantar said. “And although people are seeing deer out and about, I think, still, on a statewide basis, there are less deer out there from the winter. There are going to be less deer to be had starting [today].”

The state’s biologists are pretty certain of that and have taken last winter into consideration during every phase of their management effort.

Last year, more than 66,000 any-deer permits were awarded to Maine hunters, allowing them to shoot a doe or fawn if they chose. They were also allowed to shoot a buck instead.

This year only 51,850 any-deer permits were awarded, and no permits were allotted in 18 of the state’s 29 Wildlife Management Districts.

As you might expect, the DIF&W’s preseason estimate of the upcoming session’s deer kill is also lower than it has been in past years.

Kantar estimates that about 24,000 deer will be shot, which would be the lowest total since 1987.

Kantar said hunters may notice some differences afield this year, due to the troubles the herd faced during the winter.

“Typically, every year, the yearlings make up the largest component of animals that are harvested,” Kantar said.

The problem: This year’s yearlings are last year’s fawns, which were especially susceptible to the harsh winter.

“Therefore, if there are less yearlings out there, that translates to less of a harvest,” Kantar said. “People will be searching out and running into more mature animals.”

In addition, Kantar said that the adult does that were in poor physical condition after the winter may have fared poorly and given birth to fawns that were underweight as a result. That could have led to another reduction in the herd as more fawns than normal could have died before reaching autumn.

Kantar said that on Youth Deer Day a week ago, he saw two yearling bucks at a tagging station and was impressed at their overall condition.

One weighed 110 pounds, the other 125 pounds. He said the average yearling buck weighs between 117 and 120 pounds.

He said a good early green-up and some summer rain that provided abundant vegetation helped the deer feed well.

But he said the current conditions, including a banner acorn crop in some regions, may make hunting more unpredictable for some.

“That’s going to provide, probably, another challenge for hunters because it may be more of a challenge to find deer with all of those natural food crops being abundant out in the woods,” Kantar said.

The biologist said that many hunters may decide to be less selective about which deer they shoot, especially if they have an any-deer permit in their pocket.

His reasoning: Hunters will be less confident that they’ll see a bigger deer if they wait longer.

But the season report isn’t all bad. In fact, Kantar was looking forward to getting out and trying his luck on opening morning … just like the rest of us.

One thing working in our favor, for a change, is (or might be) the weather.

“Certainly, the high winds have brought down the rest of the leaves, so we’ve got good visibility,” Kantar said. “I don’t know whether any snow fell this last day or so in the northern areas or western mountains, but I think the feel outside is that this is deer hunting season, and behaviorwise for people, I think that’s helpful. It’s not warm and 70 degrees out.”

Salmon hearings set

If you’ve been following Atlantic salmon restoration efforts of late, you’re probably aware that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving forward with a proposal that targets Maine rivers.

Specifically, the USFWS has proposed to expand the endangered listing for the Gulf of Maine population of Atlantic salmon and is determining the designation of critical habitat for that population.

The rivers in question are the Penobscot, the Kennebec and the Androscoggin.

Catch-and-release salmon seasons have been held on the Penobscot for the past three years. More than 2,100 adult salmon have returned to the river’s Veazie Dam this year, which is more than double the number that returned in 2007.

This week concerned anglers and conservationists will have the chance to sound off on the USFWS plan during a pair of hearings.

The first hearing will be held at the Augusta Civic Center on Wednesday. The second will be held at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer on Thursday.

Both events will begin with an information session from 6-7 p.m. Public comments will follow from 7-9 p.m.

The USFWS advises those who plan on attending and speaking to bring a copy of their statement in writing. If the attendance is large, the allotted time for each speaker may be limited.

Public written comments will be accepted until Dec. 2 for those wishing to discuss expanding the currently listed population and until Dec. 5 for those wishing to share views on the critical habitat designation.

For more information, go to www.noaa.gov.

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