Asked to find a silver lining, a single piece of good news he could share about the status of the state’s deer herd, Lee Kantar rubbed his forehead and slowly exhaled on Wednesday afternoon.
Then, after a few minutes of thought, the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s lead deer biologist settled on this: In 12 of the state’s Wildlife Management Districts, the deer population is above, at or near the DIF&W’s short-term population objectives.
Unfortunately, that leaves 17 more districts where the situation is worse. In some parts of the state, it’s much worse.
And when Kantar and his fellow wildlife biologists meet next week to begin hashing out their recommendations for 2009 any- deer permits, some drastic measures will be up for scientific debate.
Among the options that will at least be discussed: shortening or closing the deer-hunting season in the hardest-hit districts of northern Maine.
“We’re there now. We’re obviously there,” Kantar said, responding to a question on how bad the situation would have to get before those most severe restrictions would be put on the table for discussion.
“It’s an extremely tough time for deer in the northern part of the state and we’ll consider all of those types of changes and see where that leads us from a biological perspective,” Kantar said. “Our neighbor next door in Canada, they’ve closed seasons and we have a lot to learn from them in terms of how that all went. I need to talk to them and have that summarized for us as well for us to have that in hand.”
In the state’s six northernmost WMDs, which stretch from the U.S.-Canada border down to the Golden Road, the top of Baxter State Park, Patten, Smyrna and Houlton, the herd has been particularly impacted by winter weather. The Down East herd held its own over the harsh 2007-08 winter, Kantar said, but has been the focus of DIF&W recovery efforts for several years.
In response to the most severe winter since 1971, the DIF&W issued any- deer permits in only 11 of 29 WMDs in 2008.
Without one of those permits in hand, firearms hunters are required to target only antlered deer.
And with another fairly severe winter under way, it may be necessary to add more “bucks-only” zones this fall, or to further tinker with the regulations in zones that are already “bucks only,” Kantar said.
Kantar said he realizes that any recommendations could be criticized by members of the public and might not pass muster with the DIF&W advisory committee, which will receive the reports. Those considerations, he said, couldn’t be allowed to play a role during scientific discussions that will play out late next week between the state’s deer biologists.
“Our job is to look at the biology of it and not the politics of it,” Kantar said. “Once it leaves our shop, it goes into a different realm.
“So we need to get together as wildlife biologists, look at all the information we have, which is a ton of information on the deer population, and on harvest and how that’s affected deer, and winter severity and all these things, and we need to look up in these hard-hit places in northern Maine and look at what changing the season length would look like, what it actual means to deer numbers,” he said. “And it’s not a clear-cut thing like people would think.”
The winter severity index that biologists rely on is based on a 20-week data cycle. This year’s “winter” runs for another five weeks, until April 21, Kantar said.
Last year, portions of extreme northern Maine had extreme winter conditions for more than the 140 days of the 20-week cycle that biologists track.
“The last time we had a winter of [that] magnitude was 1971. The difference between 2008 and 1971 is the north woods,” Kantar said. “It’s a totally different landscape, and that’s just the reality of the world we live in.”
In 1971, state officials canceled the last week of deer season to protect the herd. Kantar said he’s sure the deer losses incurred during the 2008 winter were more severe than those of 1971 because of the change in the forest landscape and available wintering habitat.
The best thing that can happen for the state’s deer herd, he said, was exactly what was taking place on Wednesday: It was raining, and the snow pack was melting.
“If it stays like this right now, in the big deer parts of the state, south and central [areas], that could be good news,” Kantar said. “Because really the length of the winter is a driving force behind how well adult does come out of the winter and bucks come out of the winter, but also a driving force behind what productivity is going to look like.”
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