By this point in the hunting season, Dennis Beaulier has typically registered around 100 deer at his Ashland general store.
This year, he may not even hit 50 for the entire season.
“I have 31 tagged right now,” said Beaulier, owner of Gateway Variety Store. “We took a real bad beating last winter.”
Winter is never an easy season for most of Maine’s deer population. But by all accounts, last winter was especially deadly for the relatively short-legged whitetails, which struggle in 2 feet of snow, much less than the 5 or 6 feet that piled up in the forests around Ashland and everywhere else in northern Maine.
Exactly how many deer died last winter is impossible to tell. But according to anecdotal evidence from deer registration or “tagging” stations throughout central and northern Maine, biologists’ dire predictions of massive die-offs were not exaggerated and actually may have been understated.
Indian Hill Trading Post in Greenville had tagged about half as many deer as during a typical season. While more hunters appear to be coming in with larger deer — weighing in at 200 pounds or above — the reports from the field are that hunters are lucky even to spot a deer these days.
“We had a group of hunters that said they were here for 16 days and they saw one deer track,” said Brandon Lavigne, who tags deer at Indian Hill.
Other tagging stations are also reporting lower numbers. Tagging figures were down more than 30 percent at McK’s Variety in Hampden, and Roger’s Market in Hudson had tagged just 38 deer by Saturday. The market usually would have tagged between 60 and 70 by this time in November, according to owner Roger Collins.
Collins said 200-pounders used to be common at the Hudson store about a decade ago, whereas now a 180-pound deer is considered good-sized. Collins said he hopes the cooler weather will help hunters as the bucks begin to rut, although he didn’t sound overly optimistic about the season.
“The deer aren’t there,” he said.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is partly behind the reduced harvest. With such high mortality last winter, the department issued 14,425 fewer antlerless deer permits that would allow hunters to take either a buck or a doe. That was a 21 percent reduction from 2007.
Hunters also are restricted to shooting bucks in roughly two-thirds of the state under DIF&W’s rules. As a result of the winter kills and reduced antlerless deer permits, the department anticipates that about 24,000 deer will be killed by hunters this season — the lowest figure in more than two decades.
By contrast, hunters tagged 28,884 last year.
Tom Gilbert, owner of Herring Bros. Meat Cutters in the Piscataquis County town of Guilford, said he has processed only three or four does out of the 150 deer that have come into his shop so far. And like many of the tagging stations, Gilbert said his overall count for the year is down about 50 percent.
On Sunday, Gilbert only had two deer waiting to be cut. Normally, there would be 15 to 20 hanging outside.
“I’ve done some good bucks, don’t get me wrong, but not many numbers,” Gilbert said.
DIF&W estimates that 200,000 hunters normally take to the woods during hunting season in Maine. Those hunters are critical contributors to the economy of many rural Maine towns as big-game hunting in Maine generates an estimated $400 million in revenue.
Some tagging station owners said they have heard hunters say they planned to take the year off — from deer hunting, at least — because of last year’s harsh winter. Others said they planned to stick to their beloved fall tradition even if their chances of getting a buck are lower.
Ben LeBlanc, owner of Ben’s Trading Post in Presque Isle, said some sportsmen who are always hoping for an easy hunt get frustrated when they come back empty-handed. But LeBlanc, who also has tagged about 50 percent fewer deer so far this year, said that’s why they call it hunting and not killing.
“A hunter goes out to relax and have a good time and enjoy hunting … with family and friends,” LeBlanc said. “And if you should happen to get a deer, it’s a bonus.”