LEVANT, Maine — Elwood Mason began his farming career at the age of 7½, milking cows on the family farm.
Thirteen years ago, he traded in his cows for a herd of a different kind. Now, he’s among the dozens of Mainers who raise deer to make a living.
“No more milking two times a day,” the 80-year-old Mason said.
Unfortunately for Mason — and potentially for the native white-tailed deer that live in Maine — keeping his herd of almost 200 red deer in their fenced Levant pastures has proved to be a bit of a problem.
In early October several of the red deer, which resemble small elk, escaped from Mason Farms.
Mason isn’t sure exactly how many got out, but says it’s fewer than 10. He suspects a horse rubbed its hindquarters against a fence, knocking planks from a gate and leaving an easy exit for the deer.
A contract inspector for the Department of Agriculture, which oversees operations of the state’s deer farms, says five red deer have been accounted for, but others have been spotted around eastern Maine.
One deer was hit by a car on Interstate 95 near the Bangor Mall and subsequently shot and killed by a state trooper. Another was shot by an off-duty police officer in Old Town who knew that red deer had escaped. Others reportedly have been shot by hunters. One has been seen in Orrington.
The state inspector, who worked for several years as the state’s top deer biologist, says he and other biologists always are concerned about the potential consequences when domestic deer from farms interact with wild, white-tailed deer.
“Both [the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife] and [the Department of] Agriculture agree that we don’t want domestic deer mingling with wild whitetails, for a variety of reasons,” said Gerry Lavigne, the former DIF&W biologist, now a contractor responsible primarily for chronic wasting disease monitoring, domestic deer licensing, and inspections of the state’s deer farms.
Disease — especially chronic wasting disease, a deadly brain illness similar to mad cow disease that has not yet been detected in Maine’s deer — is the big reason biologists are worried.
“We’re never sure that Maine is free of [chronic wasting disease], either through the wild deer or domestic deer,” Lavigne said. “It stands to reason that we should avoid intermingling of the several species [of farm deer in addition to native white-tailed deer] in the wild.”
But intermingle they do.
Lavigne said that in the last six months, there have been at least seven reports of escapes from the state’s deer farms. Two of those have originated at Mason Farms. In the earlier Mason Farms incident, the female deer that escaped could not be captured and was shot and killed.
The other incidents have taken place across the state, in Frankfort, Danforth, Phippsburg, Skowhegan and Lexington.
Lavigne said the farmers are required to report escapes to the Department of Agriculture within 24 hours, and to get the deer back into their pastures within 72 hours. After that, the department begins working with the farmers to get the animals back in a variety of ways, including harvesting the deer.
Lavigne said that in the most recent Mason Farms case, the Department of Agriculture was not notified within 24 hours. He also said that’s not uncommon in similar cases, when farmers think they can solve the problem themselves.
Farmers whose deer escape and who fail to follow the notification rules could be penalized, but that’s unlikely, Lavigne said.
“What you’ve got to realize is [the Department of] Agriculture has no farm cops,” Lavigne said. “We have no wardens or enforcement.”
A farmer’s license could be pulled for violations but Lavigne said that is an option that is used only as a last resort. The goal, he said, is working with farmers to ensure better compliance with existing rules.
Mason said he wasn’t fully aware that there were notification rules in place for situations such as his.
“There might have [a rule], but I don’t know it,” he said.
Rounding up the escaped domestic deer is a priority and the task proves difficult, Lavigne said.
“These deer [that escaped from Mason Farms] were subadult 2-year-old and 3-year-old deer,” Lavigne said. “During the rut they’re precluded from creating a harem and breeding [by the other, larger male deer]. When they escape, they wander in order to form their own harem. To them, they think their harems are over the next hill, the next hill, the next hill.”
Before long, they’re miles from their farm.
Lavigne said a deer that escaped from a northern Maine farm in 2003 wandered 40 miles in a few days before it was found. In another incident, a deer traveled 18 miles from Dixmont to Brooks in just two days.
And all that wandering makes Lee Kantar, the DIF&W’s deer and moose biologist, nervous.
Kantar was careful with his words, pointing out that the jurisdiction of deer in the state’s farms rests with the Department of Agriculture, not with the DIF&W. But when those farmed deer escape, he gets worried.
“This is a delicate balance between a person’s right to make a living and us wanting to protect the state resource, which is our wild deer and moose herds, which has an incredible value to the state,” Kantar said.
Kantar said the state’s inspection process indicates that farm-raised deer are free of chronic wasting disease and he praised the embargo on the importation to Maine of cervids, or deer, which was enacted in 2002.
In addition, escaped red deer can’t interbreed with native whitetails; Kantar said that, biologically, that would be akin to a moose mating with a deer.
Still, he’s concerned.
“When they escape, they have the potential to affect wild species,” Kantar said. “Specifically, disease transmission is our biggest concern.”
Lavigne said there are 65 licensed deer farms in the state, including hobby farms with only a couple of animals and large operations with as many as 850. Of the farms, nine are large-game shooting enclosures where hunters pay to harvest the deer. In all, he said those farms hold about 5,000 animals, including elk, red deer, elk-red deer hybrids, sika deer, fallow deer, boar and bison.
Mason said he sells the large male red deer to game farms, and can receive $1,000 for a big animal. The meat of the females is sold, either for $3 a pound for a half or whole deer, or for $6 a pound, cut and wrapped.
Maine Game Warden Jim Fahey said that no matter where Mason’s deer may wander, the farmer still owns them.
“What I would tell someone, if they see what appears to be a red deer with a yellow ear tag, I’m going to try to involve Mr. Mason,” Fahey said.
Lavigne said farmers must give their authorization for others to shoot the animals in the wild.
Mason has no problem with that equation and is willing to give his authorization. He just wants to get his deer back, one way or another.
“I’d want [hunters] to put it down and then call me,” Mason said. “I’d give ’em some of it. Someone in Old Town shot one and I gave ’em the head. That’s worth about $150, right there.”