Got your deer yet? For many Mainers this phrase has become increasingly difficult over the years to reply with an inhaled affirmation of “yeah.”
As a wildlife biologist, I am acutely aware of this fact and have heard the complaints. Low deer numbers have been blamed on everything from the turkeys eating all the acorns to increased posting of land to even the flatlanders from away; all highly unlikely suspects. The reality is that a perfect storm of events has conspired to reduce deer numbers in northern Maine.
I am blessed. I get to work and hunt in central Maine, primarily Wildlife Management Districts 17 and 23. I have been checking deer each fall for more than 20 years in central Maine. Excellent deer hunting still exists in these areas in spite of the robust turkey population and posted land. When asked about the deer season of 2010, I am happy to report the good news: It’s been the year of the yearling buck!
As a biologist, I am much more interested in the yearling bucks, which by definition are 18-month-old deer who are sporting their first rack and were fawns during the previous year’s hunting season. These deer are more interesting than an old mossy-face buck because they tell us more about the condition of the herd. They show the results of having survived just one winter and reflect the previous winter’s severity in their body condition.
My fellow DIF&W biologists and I key in on these yearling bucks as we travel the state looking for hunter-harvested deer. We measure their antler beam diameter and collect weights in order to assess condition. I consider any yearling buck with an antler beam diameter greater than 20 mm to be a trophy deer taken early in his development. An old swamp buck that has survived many winters is more difficult to draw a useful inference. All of those winters create too much noise in the data. Big bucks are great to show off to friends but biologically are not as useful for our assessment purposes.
In a typical year one would expect a yearling buck to dress out between 100 and 125 pounds and to have antler beam diameters between 15 and 19 mm. This year has a class for the record books. Last year’s fawn crop was exceptional with some fawns approaching 90 pounds dressed weight. That year’s class has matured into an unbelievable class of yearling bucks. I’ve checked two yearling bucks that dressed out over 150 pounds with antler beam diameters greater than 26 mm. I have lost count of the number of yearling bucks that I have checked that were more than 130 pounds dressed with antler beam diameters greater than 20 mm.
The likely causes for this are last year’s mild winter combined with a reduction in the number of deer per square mile on the landscape. In central Maine the reduction of deer numbers was by design. The Public Working Group, which determines the deer management goals for the department, ordained the reduction of deer numbers in central Maine from a high of approximately 25 deer per square mile down to 15 deer per square mile. This is the reason certain wildlife management districts in central Maine have been flooded with any-deer permits over the last several years.
Fewer deer on the landscape combined with a break from Mother Nature have resulted in an exceptional year class of young deer, no doubt about it. Serious deer hunters want quality bucks and Maine has long held a reputation for trophy quality bucks. Sure, you can hunt smaller more numerous deer in southern states but if you want a true trophy buck, come to Maine. I am happy to report that our reputation is still intact. This year’s class will inevitably produce some true trophy deer in a few years and Maine deer hunters can look forward to the opportunity to hunt one. This truly is good news at a time when we could use some.
Keel Kemper of Unity is a wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.