June 21, 2018
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Deer Déjà Vu all over again

By Bill Beardsley, Special to the BDN

My first assignment from the pragmatic, conservative governor: “Talk to the rural caucus, the game biologists, and the land owners; go on a dead deer count in the deeryards and find out what killed them; look at our laws, regulations and policies, then come back and tell me who and how we should manage the deer herd.”

This was not Maine, and the year was 1971. The governor was Republican Deane Davis of Vermont. The deer were then, even as now, the rural cause du jour.

We counted over 100 deer carcasses in one deeryard, studied bone marrow, weights, numbers of fetuses per doe and markings of predators, and found half the deer killed by bear and dogs, half starved, all suffering from malnutrition. I learned more about the interaction of government, science, the rural economy and deer on that two-month study then I ever learned on my doctoral research on woodlands management, and that experience still influences my thinking today.

Early this month, a revered former legislator from The County recounted to me his skepticism of the biologist view that northern Maine was marginal deer habitat. He shared memories of 50 years ago when a patchwork quilt of farms, small clearcuts and few predators resulted in decades of huge deer populations in The County. To the cynics who told him those conditions were unique to one time and could never occur again, he posed the question we all need to ask: Why not?

This common-sense leader’s reflections are backed by good science. In the landscape he described, there was lots of “edge.” Edge is the contact zone between dense softwood cover and immediate adjoining meadows and small hardwood regeneration that provide nutrients. In a northern climate, be it Wisconsin or Maine, miles of edge per square mile of woods determines the carrying capacity of the land for deer (and snowshoe hare and lynx, incidentally). The more edge, the more deer. Deeryards are a significant factor, but, as I can personally attest, without edge, without nutrients, deeryards can become little more than killing ground.

My County friend asks, “Why does northern Wisconsin today have a strong deer population

along with lots of predators, too?” Could it be because Wisconsin has more small working farms, more small clearcuts, and hence, more edge per square mile?

What would happen if Maine championed the cause of “working farms” and forests, streamlining regulations, lowering taxes, running with Gov. Paul LePage’s concepts of an ag/forestry magnet school?

What if, instead of forestry laws that encourage selective cutting and thinning, that leave little open forest floor for nutrient-rich undergrowth, we encouraged a 50-, 60-, 70-year rotation of small checkerboard clearcuts that naturally maximize the miles of edge per square mile of forest land? We are already doing some of this on public lands. But consider instead of government spending and oversight, why not let the farmers and forest industry and land owners do the heavy lifting like they did in Aroostook County and elsewhere back half a century ago? When guest columns ask, “How on earth can you believe the selfish private sector can do anything for the public good?” our response should be: “Because it works.”

Consider our vast, even-aged forests that are the 35-year outcome of the spruce budworm epidemic and salvage clearcuts of the 1970s. Within this current decade, a strategic pre-commercial thinning using small clearcuts could arguably double the food supply for the depleted northern and eastern Maine deer herd just as the surrounding spruce fir matures into cover. It is a politically incorrect concept of how loggers can build the herd.

Does this mean clearcutting deeryards and ending the suppression of predators, reducing protection of pristine areas, not managing areas for ATVs or scenic beauty, not advocating old growth for other wildlife species with different ecological needs — absolutely not. Maine has diverse private, non-profit and government landowners, each marching to a different drummer, many focused on ways that do not optimize deer populations.

We don’t need some politically correct, majority-rules, single interpretation of multiple use that breeds mediocrity of purpose and a disappearing deer herd in its wake. What I do sense is a potential bonding of the LePage administration with conservation constituencies around the concept of multiple practices among multiple land owners, northern Maine as a place where economic vitality, public access, conservation and, yes, a healthy deer herd are wed.

Or to paraphrase Yogi Berra: It’s deer déjà vu all over again.

Bill Beardsley is commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation.

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