Each year, the state’s head deer biologist crunches a huge pile of numbers, fires up his computer and offers a preseason prediction of how many deer will be shot by hunters during the fall.
The good news: That prediction is always very accurate — often within a few hundred of the actual number of tags that will be filled.
The bad news for this year’s hunters: That prediction is always very accurate.
This year’s estimate, according to Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife deer biologist Lee Kantar, is 19,500 deer will be killed during the various archery, regular firearms and muzzleloading seasons.
That total would mark the second straight significant decline in deer harvest — 21,062 deer were killed a year ago — and a huge drop from totals accumulated over the past decade.
Over the past 10 years hunters have killed an average of 30,353 deer per year in Maine.
The drastic reduction is related to the state’s allotment of any-deer permits, which in turn is linked to the severity of the past two winters. Kantar said those winters took a huge toll on the state’s deer herd, particularly in extreme northern Maine. Kantar has said that the first extremely harsh winter — 2007-2008 — may have killed as much as 30 percent of the herd in northern Maine.
As a result, fewer any-deer permits were allotted. Those permits allow hunters to shoot deer without antlers, if they choose. All hunters without any-deer permits are required to shoot antlered deer.
Biologists know how many of those permits they have to issue in a given Wildlife Management District in order for hunters to shoot the desired number of does in accordance with state management goals. If they want more does culled from the herd, they raise the number of any-deer permits allotted.
This year, the herd’s woes in certain areas dictated that any-deer permits were allotted in only 11 of the state’s 29 Wildlife Management Districts. None of those districts are in northern Maine, where the deer herd was struggling even before the recent winters.
“[The winters have made] a significant hit because what you start to look at is, who gets affected most by a harsh winter?” Kantar said. “We’ve said it again and again, fawns have a really tough time surviving a tough winter. So those are the yearlings that would be in the next fall’s harvest. And of course the yearlings are the ones that make up a majority of the annual deer kill.”
According to a DIF&W report containing deer harvest information from 2008, 37 percent of the antlered deer shot a year ago were yearlings, and due to the severe winter preceding it, there weren’t as many yearlings in the woods last fall.
And according to the same report, the number of total hunting licenses sold (including small game licenses, which do not allow deer hunting) “[has] not changed significantly over the last 10 years.”
In 2008, a total of 209,362 hunting licenses were sold in Maine. The 10-year average, according to the report, was 209,751. Of those hunting licenses sold in 2008, 202,401 would have allowed deer hunting, and the DIF&W estimated that 172,041 hunters actually pursued deer.
The Associated Press reported that if the deer kill is lower than projected it could approach the level of 1971 (18,903). The AP noted that the 1934 harvest, the lowest harvest before that, was just 13,284.
Kantar, however, is reluctant to compare this year’s 19,500 estimate with deer-kill numbers going back decades.
“That [estimate] is certainly on the lower end of things [historically],” Kantar said. “But the issue is, now you’re going back decades and decades, and Maine was a totally different place. Whether we talk about the 1930s, whether we talk about the 1950s, whether we’re talking about 2009, so many things have changed that it’s comparing apples to oranges.”
Kantar pointed out that before the mid-1980s, when Maine’s any-deer permit system began, the state’s biologists were not able to respond to changing conditions by reducing the number of does that were culled from the herd each fall.
Once-prime deer habitat has changed over the years and urban sprawl has hit. Wintering areas have been cut. Farmland has been abandoned.
All of those factors make comparing data from different generations tough, he said.
Add in two straight severe winters, and it becomes impossible.
“The thing that’s going to drive deer populations more than anything else is just going to be how we as people impact the landscape,” Kantar said.
He said that in the 1950s, Washington and Hancock counties had 200,000 more acres of farmland than they do today.
And the constant changes in different areas present different challenges.
According to the AP, George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, says the bleak hunting outlook may take an economic toll on guides, restaurants, lodges, taxidermists and others that cater to hunters.
But two guides in northern Maine say the weather of the last two winters has had little effect on their businesses.
Up north, in the town of Allagash, guide Wade Kelly said the most recent two winters have had little impact on his deer season business.
“They’ve got to remember that a harsh winter is nothing new up here,” Kelly said. “A harsh winter? We’ve always had those. I can remember when I was young, having four, five feet of snow.”
Kelly said being honest and giving clients achievable expectations is the key.
“Our deal is we still have guys coming, but it would be the die-hard hunters, the guys who know they’ll at least be able to find one good buck,” Kelly said.
“The people that come to our place, it’s the tradition of coming and they’re going to come no matter what,” Kelly said. “And we do have a few big buck deer and the people that come after them are going to be able to hunt for them in a place where they won’t have much competition.”
In Eagle Lake, another northern Maine town that has endured tough winters the past two years, Wayne Bennett of Fish River Lodge said he and his wife, Tenley Bennett, have seen more deer and more deer sign this year than they have in past years.
And Wayne Bennett said his clients aren’t staying away because they’re worried about not seeing deer.
Instead, they’re hoping to see the deer.
“We’re very honest with them and explain the situation,” Bennett said. “We still have hunters come up every year, and they’re coming up to find the big elusive buck. They know the situation and they’re still coming.”