For the past three months hunters either have stopped me on the street or fired off desperate e-mails seeking answers to the same question: How many deer did Maine hunters tag in 2010?
Deer, as you likely realize, are always a hot topic among the state’s outdoor enthusiasts. Add in a collapse of the state’s northern herd after two straight harsh winters in 2008 and 2009, and conversations about deer management — or recovery — become even more heated.
Late last week, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife issued a press release that disclosed the preliminary deer-kill count for the 2010 hunting season. And as state biologists expected, that number reflected a modest rebound of the herd. In all, 20,063 deer were tagged by hunters last year. That total was up 11 percent from the previous year.
The state’s biologists had projected a harvest of 20,918 deer in 2010.
Lee Kantar, the DIF&W’s head deer biologist, said the department was cautious when it decided how many any-deer permits to allot for 2010. Hunters who possess those permits can kill a doe, fawn or adult male deer. Those without any-deer permits must target only deer with antlers.
“Last year when we were going through the permitting process and projected the harvest, we were very conservative in issuing doe permits and in what we had expected for an increase in buck harvest,” Kantar said.
The state’s northern tier, which had been particularly hard hit during two consecutive brutal winters that biologists said may have killed up to 30 percent of the region’s herd, showed an impressive rebound during 2010.
“The northern districts performed better than they had,” Kantar said. “Numerically it doesn’t sound like a lot, but percentage-wise it was huge.”
The reason the actual numeric results don’t sound so impressive is simple: There just aren’t very high deer densities in the north woods any more, so few are shot each year. When viewed as percentage gains over 2009, however, those numbers are impressive.
Kantar explained that in Wildlife Management District 2 (including Wallagrass, Eagle Lake and several unorganized townships) the harvest went from 20 bucks to 38, a 90 percent increase. Similar or better results were recorded in WMD 3 (which includes Madawaska) the total jumped from 35 to 81 bucks taken. In WMD 4 (farther south, from the western Maine border with Canada to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway) the harvest surged from 50 to 73. In WMD 5 (East of the AWW to Route 11) the total went from 80 to 103, and in WMD 6 (east of Route 11 to the Canadian Border) the trend continued, with a change from 160 to 237 deer tagged.
“Those are big increases,” Kantar said.
Kantar said the equation that helped lead to the increases makes perfect sense.
“We went from two extreme winters to an extremely mild winter and it’s simple biology: Deer survival increases over a mild winter,” Kantar said. “And if, indeed, like it happened, if you have a majority of yearling bucks that make up the harvest, or are one of the larger representative groups, that shows up when you have better over-winter survival.”
According to the DIF&W press release, study of the yearling bucks that were part of the 2009 harvest showed that those deer were in better physical condition than those 2009 deer that had been born at the end of a second straight harsh winter.
On average, those 2010 bucks weighed 6.6 pounds more than their 2009 peers. In addition, 67 percent of the 2010 yearling bucks sported multi-branched antlers, which is another sign of relative health.
“[The 2010 yearlings] were unbelievable. Again, it’s simply a by-product of a mild winter,” Kantar said. “Obviously in a mild winter when deer are free to roam about and have access to different foods, they don’t have the nutritional stress on them so they’re able to recoup their body weights come spring. And last year was a wicked early spring.”
This year, however, hasn’t been … yet.
“I think this winter, thus far, has been pretty bad at times,” Kantar said. “Certainly we’ve had some pretty good snow depths.”
But Kantar said the short-range weather forecast could help the state’s herd.
“A lot depends on what happens from here on out,” Kantar said. “If we get some more rain here like we did for south-central [parts of the state], we could really wash away the effects of restrictive conditions [during which deer have a hard time moving through heavy snow].”
On Friday, a heavy rain fell on Bangor. For deer, that was just the snow-melting recipe that Kantar had hoped for.
Not that his work is done for this year, of course. Kantar and his fellow biologists are already focusing on the 2011 deer season and trying to figure out how many any-deer permits they’ll allot to the state’s hunters.
“I’ve only got another week to get ready for our initial permitting and that includes [looking at] winter severity,” he said.