AUGUSTA, Maine — Citing the importance of a healthy deer herd to Maine’s economy and heritage, Gov. Paul LePage and the state’s top game official on Thursday unveiled a multipoint strategy to replenish the white tail numbers in hardest-hit areas.
LePage said a string of severe winters, habitat loss, attacks by coyotes and human causes including poaching and highway collisions are at the heart of a loss of deer that’s especially serious in northern, eastern and western Maine. Deer are abundant in the southern and central parts of the state.
Deer hunting and viewing represent at least $200 million a year in Maine’s economy, drawing money to motels, sporting camps, restaurants, guide services and other businesses, LePage said. Maine registers roughly 146,000 resident hunters and nearly 30,000 nonresident hunters.
But fall deer harvests have dropped in recent years to some of the lowest levels recorded in the state, said Senate President Kevin Raye. That leaves Maine, long known for its big bucks, in the position of becoming less desirable to hunters.
“The value of our whitetail population cannot be overstated,” said Raye, a Republican whose Washington County district is one of those hit by low deer numbers.
DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock said there is no single cause for the decline, which has led to deer density numbers as low as 1.5 to two deer per square mile in some areas, versus a goal of 7 to 10 deer per square mile. But Woodcock said it’s time for action.
“This effort is going to take some time,” said Woodcock. “It won’t happen overnight.”
During a State House press conference on Thursday, Woodcock and LePage outlined a plan that represents several years of discussions between DIF&W officials, sportsmen, lawmakers and wildlife conservation groups.
The plan stresses the importance of recognizing and protecting deer yards, which are areas where deer seek shelter from the snow and weather during winter.
Such deer wintering areas — which typically feature enclosed canopies of fir trees — are critical to the survival of whitetailed deer in Maine, which due to the heavy snow and severe winters represents the northern edge of the species’ range.
The deer restoration plan also includes more coyote control in targeted areas, additional deer-crossing warnings along highways where a lot of collisions occur and higher fines for poaching in hard-hit areas.
One method mentioned Thursday — and endorsed by both LePage and several conservation groups — is to use more funding from the Land for Maine’s Future program to encourage landowners to protect deer yards, which are locations where deer seek shelter during winter.
But LePage’s support for using LMF funds to protect deer yards could come into conflict with his clear opposition to new bonding measures.
In November, voters approved $6.5 million in bonds for LMF programs that target forests and wildlife habitat. Traditionally, competition for LMF funding is intense, with the program’s board receiving far more requests than can be accommodated.
Sen. David Trahan, a Waldoboro Republican who has been helping lead the effort to rebuild Maine’s deer herd, has proposed a $36 million bond measure to replenish LMF accounts. When asked whether he was prepared to say how he felt about Trahan’s LMF bond package, LePage replied with a simple “no.”
Trahan said language he has proposed would give more weight to LMF proposals that seek to protect deer yards. Those changes are a critical part of any effort moving forward and a significant policy change that he hopes the Legislature will endorse, Trahan said.
As for the debate over bonding, Trahan indicated he believes it would be premature to discuss the issue since lawmakers have yet to decide whether to approve a bond package.
“That is a policy decision that is now in the Legislature’s jurisdiction,” Trahan said.
Predators — coyotes in particular — are often mentioned as a major cause of the low deer numbers in many parts of Maine. But Woodcock said coyotes and bears are not solely to blame for the struggles of deer in Maine. And as the intense debates over coyote snaring and hunting bear over bait illustrated, significantly expanding hunting of either of those two predators would likely encounter substantial political kickback.
Speaking after the media event, Trahan said he believes the coyote snaring issue is off the table. He also acknowledged that restoring the deer herd in some areas may take as long as 15 or 20 years, but the key is protecting both deer habitat and deer in that habitat.
“Until we have habitat, we are not going to get there,” Trahan said.
The plan has support from an array of sporting and conservation organizations, whose members crowded a State House news conference.
Among them was John Chapman of Athens, whose 250 acres includes a deer yard he manages. Chapman describes a typical deer yard as a cedar or fir stand that provides a covering from deep snow, nourishment from trees and protection from sharp winter winds. He said a deer without a yard “is like a cow without a barn.”
Aside from advising other landowners how to maintain those yards, Chapman provides feed to help deer get through the winter, a practice generally frowned upon by state biologists. But a bill seen as one of the multiple strategies to rebuild the deer herd seeks to establish standards to feed deer.
“You just want to get them through to the next spring,” said Chapman. “And if you get them through the spring, what you’ve got is a good rack there.”
LePage said he has also sent a letter to federal wildlife officials asking for a decision on Maine’s applications for a so-called “incidental take permit” to absolve the state — or trappers — from liability if they accidentally kill a Canada lynx through otherwise legal trapping practices.
Maine DIF&W has been the target of several lawsuits contending that the state’s trapping regulations were causing harm to populations of the federally protected wildcats because lynx occasionally end up in traps.
In response to court orders, the state added additional restrictions on trappers in hopes of avoiding additional incidents involving lynx. But despite several revisions to its application, Maine has yet to receive an incidental take permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
LePage said, however, that he was “very encouraged” that the federal government will give the state an answer.
“The whole issue is around the Canadian lynx and I keep telling them that, remember, it is Canadian lynx and we live in Maine,” LePage said with a smile.
BDN reporter Kevin Miller contributed to this report.