PORTLAND, Maine — After two straight harsh winters that thinned Maine’s deer herd, the state’s signature game animal is getting a boost from this winter’s mild weather.
With high temperatures and scant snowfall, deer have had to expend relatively little energy fighting off frigid cold or tramping through deep snow in search of food.
Fawns born last year have had a high survival rate, and the deer that are born this June are expected to be in good shape because their mothers are strong, said Lee Kantar, deer and moose biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
“The air temperatures and the lack of precipitation is a huge boon for deer,” he said.
Maine’s deer population fluctuates from year to year, but it has dropped sharply over the past two years because of deep snow and biting cold. The most recent estimate, at the end of the 2008 hunting season, put the deer count at fewer than 200,000, down from more than 300,000 a decade ago.
With the smaller herd, hunters in Maine killed only 18,045 deer last fall, a 14 percent decline from 2008 and the smallest deer harvest since the 1930s. But the ranks are again growing, said George Smith, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the state’s largest sportsmen’s organization.
Smith had six to eight deer living on his 120-acre wooded lot in Readfield a year ago, but estimates 12 to 15 are there this spring. Property owners around much of the state are seeing more deer than they have in the past couple of years, he added.
Troy Romanoski, owner of Beal’s General Store, a store and tagging station in Strong where hunters register when they kill a deer, agreed that people are seeing more deer.
But he cautioned that the deer population has been hurt by more than just recent harsh winters. Wooded areas where deer seek shelter in the winter have been cut for timber in many areas, and coyote predation has been on the rise, Romanoski said.
Even with the mild winter, it probably will take several years for the herd to rebound to desired levels in southern and central Maine. It will take much longer in northern Maine.
“It’ll take decades to rebuild the numbers there,” Smith said. “There are huge sections that have no deer at all. The mild winter certainly helps, but we don’t have any deer to start with.”
As Maine’s deer herd has shrunk, so has the number of hunters.
It’s important to revive the numbers to help Maine’s hunting economy and to restore the state’s reputation as a prime place to hunt trophy bucks in the North Woods, Smith said.
“The main reason people came to Maine was because they could come to the North Woods, see very few other people and get a big buck,” he said. “They can still come to the North Woods and see very few other people, but it’s hard to find a deer.”