Maine deer biologists have begun work on a landmark two-year aerial survey of six Wildlife Management Districts that will answer a question that is key to future management efforts: How many deer do we have?
But it didn’t take long for naysayers to begin criticizing the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, according to the state’s top deer biologist.
“People are concerned with low deer populations in Maine, as we’ve talked about for years, so they’re wondering: ‘Why are we spending money on a deer survey in southern Maine?’” DIF&W biologist Lee Kantar said Thursday.
Kantar said some critics think focusing a survey on northern or Down East parts of the state would make more sense because the deer herd in both of those regions is in crisis.
There are problems with that argument, Kantar said.
“In Washington County, we know that any-deer permits are not really an option when you’re trying to grow the herd, and the same thing with northern Maine,” Kantar said. “So we know, based on all our information, that our deer population [in those areas] is low enough that we are not going to be issuing any-deer permits. So you don’t need to go out and count deer.”
In districts with low deer numbers, hunters are only allowed to shoot deer with antlers. In other districts with a thriving deer herd, hundreds or thousands of any-deer permits are issued each year, allowing hunters who receive those permits to target female deer if they choose.
When the DIF&W decides how many any-deer permits to issue in a given district, biologists closely consider a Wildlife Management District estimated deer population.
“When you’re going to start killing females, you’d better have a real good estimate of your numbers so you feel good about your management system and have the best available data to guide your management system,” Kantar said.
Kantar said the current aerial study, which is being conducted from helicopters with the cooperation of the Maine Forest Service, is modeled after studies conducted in Quebec and New Brunswick. And he says it’s a huge step forward from methods used in Maine in the past.
“We used to do it using pellet-group counts, so we went out and counted deer pellet groups along transect lines, which was very labor-intensive,” Kantar said.
If you’re confused about “pellet groups,” let Kantar explain.
“You had to walk miles and miles of transect, counting deer poop,” Kantar said.
And the counting wasn’t the difficult part. Kantar said biologists had to figure out an answer to a seemingly silly question.
“You literally have to know how many times a deer craps in the woods,” Kantar said. “And there is some debate on that.”
The helicopter-based survey is clearly an advance; on Thursday, the crew surveyed six 25-mile-long transects in WMD 17, which stretches from Hermon to Madison, and from Sangerville to Clinton.
Kantar said that due to the modeling of this “Potvin Survey,” which is named after a Quebec researcher who developed the method, accuracy increases as deer numbers increase. That, too, would make the survey less effective if conducted in areas with few deer.
“It’s not a survey that can be done with low deer numbers,” Kantar said. “You can’t fly a 25-mile transect and have few deer to count because the mathematical model, the calculations that this is all [based] on, wouldn’t give you an accurate and precise estimate.”
The current project will cost $100,000, but none of that money is coming from the state’s general fund coffers, Kantar said. Money for the survey comes from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, which raises money through the sale of lottery scratch tickets, and the federal Pittman-Robertson Fund, which is raised through the sale of guns and ammunition.
“[The impact of this survey] is huge. It’s absolutely huge,” Kantar said. “Considering the economic times, the pressures on the [DIF&W] and on state government as a whole, this is a huge thing.”