Mild winter means big yearling deer

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 7:07 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:37 p.m.

When Lee Kantar was in Presque Isle earlier this deer season, doing a bit of moose research, he also spent some time at a tagging station, checking deer that hunters brought in. After weighing one deer and determining its age by looking at its teeth, he found that a healthy level of skepticism existed in the Star City.

“People laughed at me,” the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s deer and moose biologist said, explaining that he had just told a hunter that his large-racked 154-pound buck was just a yearling. “The guy told me, ‘No way.’”

As a couple of pop-culture misfits used to say back in the ’90s: Way.

Kantar explained that determining the age of a yearling buck is pretty simple: Look for the milk teeth. If they’re all there, the deer is a yearling. If the deer is in the process of replacing those teeth, it’s a yearling. And if all of the milk teeth have been replaced, well, it gets a bit trickier after that.

Kantar didn’t even have to make a complicated determination in that case, though.

“The deer I checked that was 154 pounds was in the intermediate stage and it was clear that it was a yearling,” Kantar said.

Since then, Kantar has received plenty of similar reports of large-bodied (and in some cases, healthy-antlered) yearling deer being shot by the state’s hunters.

Kantar’s assessment of the situation that is being replayed across the state? It’s all about the snow – or lack of it – and the early thaw that most of the state enjoyed.

“The bottom line was that it made it an easy year for critters,” Kantar said. “By the numbers, if you looked at the winter across the state, it was on the easier side of things. Snow depths were fairly low, there was a very short yarding period. Randy [Cross, a fellow DIF&W biologist] says spring started Feb. 1.”

Those winter conditions allowed the deer to grow larger. It made predation tougher. And now, the hunters are reaping the benefits.

Yearling harvest in a given hunting season depends on the fawn survival of the previous winter, Kantar pointed out.

“So why do we see a depressed yearling class in 2008? Because the 2007-2008 was the third worst in 50 years. Why do we see, this year, huge yearlings, more antler development and probably more yearlings than we usually have? Because we had an easy winter. And that’s despite predation.”

Kantar said he is often asked how long it takes for a deer herd to rebound. Maine’s herd, especially in northern Maine, is struggling. But he said theoretically, if conditions remain favorable, a rebound could occur rather rapidly.

“Do the numbers. If you have one mild winter, like we just had, you have an increase in that fawn survival over the winter, so your yearling age class in 2010 wins. It increases,” Kantar said. “So you go into this winter and you have another easy one. [If mild winters continue] in the course of three years your yearlings, 2½- and 3-year-olds all benefited.”

Hunters would then see the results, as those three age classes make up most of the bucks that are shot in a given year.

The catch is obvious, Kantar admits.

“We usually don’t have that luxury,” he said. “To get three mild winters in a row across the north country, we don’t have [that]. But if it did happen, you’d see a boom.”

Kantar is smart enough not to expect a continued string of mild winters. And though this season is turning out well for a lot of hunters, he knows better than to let himself become too enthusiastic.

“I’m guarded, because we had an easy winter and that explains the majority of what we’re going to see this year,” Kantar said. “But I’m glad that people are happy with what they’re seeing and happy with these large yearlings. But it’s explained biologically. One winter doesn’t make for a rebound, for sure, of the northern deer herd, but at the same time we can be encouraged any time we get a mild winter.”

PFF tying expo set

If you’ve got a little free time on Sunday, you may want to head over to the “World Famous” Brewer Auditorium for the Penobscot Fly Fishers’ annual Fly Tying Expo.

The expo will run from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. and admission is free. A total of 28 top-notch fly tiers have committed to be on hand for the event and visitors will be able to get expert guidance on tying techniques and materials.

Three things you can count on: Food will be sold. Pies will be eaten. And the PFF gang will welcome you to join in.

And for those who think the words “World Famous” and “Brewer Auditorium” don’t belong in the same sentence? Well, you obviously didn’t grow up in Brewer during the mid-’70s (as I did). No matter what was going on at “The World Famous,” during those years, you could count on our recreation director to refer to the facility in those glowing terms, usually over a loudspeaker as he “broadcast” play-by-play of various youth sporting events.

Some of us grew up believing him.

And I guess some of us still do.

At least one member of the PFF does, because he never fails to use that description in the press releases he sends out.

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