More than 50 people crowded into the Cabinet Room at the State House in Augusta on Thursday for the public unveiling of a state initiative that will address the struggles of the Maine deer herd.
Talking about deer was nothing new for Mainers. Hunters spend hours doing that. So do wildlife-watchers and conservationists and biologists. State wildlife officials expend a lot of time and significant money managing Maine’s deer herd each year, as they have for decades.
But this gathering, many said, was different. Veteran politicians and outdoor leaders said that for the first time in recent memory, the Augusta ceremony illustrated both the plight of the herd and the fact that people — many, many people — are determined to do something to address the problems.
The outline of possible solutions, which was compiled by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in conjunction with dozens of outdoor partners, was a result of a December workshop. The lengthy report is called “Maine’s Game Plan for Deer, a plan to increase Maine’s northern, eastern and western deer herd.”
Some observers said the presence of Gov. Paul LePage, legislative leaders, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife staffers and conservationists signaled a common sense of purpose that may have been lacking in recent years.
“This is the big difference: You’ve got the governor at a press conference talking about deer wintering areas,” said Matthew Dunlap, a former legislator and secretary of state who now serves as interim executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. “That tells you exactly how severe a crisis we’re in right now.”
Providing for adequate deer wintering areas, focusing on decreasing the predation of deer in sensitive areas, coping with periodic severe winters and cutting down on other deer mortality factors, including poaching, improper winter feeding and vehicle collisions were cited as key components to the plan.
Dunlap said deer herd ebbs and flows have been cyclical, and have been the subject of reports for decades.
“We’ve been talking about this for about 60 years. This is nothing new. One of the first formal reports of fish and game developed in the early ’50s was about deer wintering area management, and it was a major issue then,” Dunlap said.
While encouraged by the focus of the plan, Dunlap said actually moving forward from the conceptual to the tangible will take effort
“Until we actually put this plan into place and put some funding behind it it’s going to be difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But this is the first step. At least people are paying attention to it. And I think that’s the major difference right now,” he said.
Among the regions that has watched its deer herd decline over recent years is Down East Maine, in particular Washington County.
Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Eastport, grew up Down East and says the deer situation is more dire than many realize.
“It’s not an overstatement to say it’s a crisis. The numbers are devastating if you look back at the number of tagged deer throughout the years, over the decades. We’re at a minuscule fraction of what we used to take,” Raye said. “We’ve all borne witness to the real problems related to coyote predation. It’s been devastating to us Down East.”
Raye echoed Dunlap’s sentiment about the plan, saying it shows that deer are now on the collective radar screen of state decision-makers.
“It’s really a matter of having a determination and a focus of the leadership to coalesce around action,” Raye said, “not just recognizing a problem, but working to bring forward ideas from all of the various groups you saw represented today, members of the IF&W committee and other legislatures who represent rural districts, in having the determination to come up with solutions and make them work.”
Chandler Woodcock, the commissioner of the DIF&W, said the plan recognizes that many factors have contributed to the plight of deer in some areas of the state and calls for action to address those factors in tangible ways.
Take predation, for instance. While some hunters choose to characterize coyotes as nothing but deer-eating machines, Woodcock said the DIF&W will address the role coyotes play in deer management in a more conservative fashion.
“We’re being very specific in our targets,” Woodcock said. “We’re targeting the predation in certain deer yards that are very meaningful to regeneration.”
Woodcock, a former legislator and an avid hunter, said he has been hearing gripes about deer from fellow sportsmen for years. Now, he said, the DIF&W plans to address those gripes in a more inclusive fashion.
“I’ve had an earful for years. We all have. Now it’s just time to cooperatively solve the problem. That’s really what it comes down to. Everybody has to buy into it,” Woodcock said.
And while not discounting the role that four-legged predators play in deer management efforts, he did say there were other predators that the DIF&W will focus upon.
“Something that we haven’t mentioned, and I will mention [now]: We have to stop killing deer illegally,” Woodcock said.