Earlier this week the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife caught the attention of the state’s deer hunters when it announced a proposal to reduce the number of any-deer permits by 46 percent for this year’s hunting season.
The reduction was the largest year-to-year drop — in numerical terms as well as on a percentage basis — since at least 1998, the latest year in which data was provided. The state began allowing the harvest of nonantlered deer only by special permit in 1985.
The state’s head deer biologist on Wednesday said that hunters and wildlife watchers shouldn’t be overly concerned by the reduction, however.
“People are getting mixed up between what’s going on in northern, eastern and western Maine [where the deer herd is struggling and no any-deer permits are issued at all] and southern Maine [where any-deer permits were reduced again this year],” said DIF&W wildlife biologist Lee Kantar.
“The sky is not falling in southern and central Maine,” Kantar continued. “This [reduction in permits] is just looking at what’s occurred in past winters and getting some new information with our survey work and staying on top of the game and insuring that we are maximizing deer numbers at those publicly derived objectives in those south-central districts so that people can really enjoy deer [in a variety of ways].”
By limiting the number of adult does that are removed from the herd every year, biologists utilize what they consider an essential management tool. Females that are shot don’t reproduce. Remove one doe from the population in the fall and you may be removing three deer from the next spring’s herd. Therefore, before allowing hunters to shoot does, they make sure that the population in that particular Wildlife Management District — the state is divided up into 29 WMDs — can withstand the hunting pressure.
In 2010, any-deer permits were allotted in just 13 of the state’s 29 WMDs. In the 2011 proposal, that number would drop to 12 and the number of permits in most districts would be reduced.
As recently as 2002, a total of 76,989 hunters — a record during the any-deer permit era — were allowed the privilege of harvesting nonantlered deer during deer season. The number of permits is adjusted by biologists and approved through DIF&W’s rule-making process each year. After 66,275 permits were allotted in 2007, two straight harsh winters took a toll on the state’s deer herd and the number of permits plummeted to 45,385 in 2009.
Last fall, after a mild winter, that number was bumped up to 48,825. But after another hard winter and in response to data that was gathered during a round of aerial surveys during the winter, biologists are forwarding a plan to further reduce the number of permits to just 26,390 for this fall.
The assumption by some, Kantar said, is that the reduction in any-deer permits is due to the recently unveiled “Game Plan for Deer” by Gov. Paul LePage, DIF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock, and legislators.
“It had nothing to do with it,” Kantar said, pointing out that the game plan is focused on restoring the herd in regions where any-deer permits aren’t handed out. The proposed permit reduction is designed to bolster populations of deer in areas where the animals are faring much better, but not as well as the state’s long-term management plan dictates.
Kantar explained that back in 1999 and 2000, the DIF&W embarked on its current 15-year management plan. A big-game working group met and decided on population “sideboards,” or a range of population densities that would be the goal in the years ahead. In many southern and central WMDs those densities were set at 15 to 20 deer per square mile.
“If you look at deer populations in that period, 1999-2000, deer were at a high point of abundance in the state, in south and central Maine,” Kantar said. “To distill it down, if you look at where we were in 1999-2000 and you look at where we are today, somewhere on that line is where we should be.”
Staying on that “line” is the goal of management efforts. And a tool that is used is the yearly allotment of any-deer permits to either reduce or expand the deer population in a given WMD.
In recent aerial surveys that were conducted using two independent deer-spotters who rode in a helicopter, Kantar said that the data showed that the population needed a boost that the state could help provide.
“District 25 [a coastal WMD that includes Warren and Waldoboro] is a great example,” Kantar said. “If you look at the buck and doe harvest [between 1999 and 2010] there’s no change. The modeling that we do showed that back in 1999 it looked like there were about 20 deer per square mile there.”
After the aerial surveys, Kantar discovered that the population density was likely less than 15 deer per square mile. As a result, biologists have proposed that the number of any-deer permits allotted be dropped from 5,900 in 2010 to 2,000 this fall.
WMD 17, which stretches from Hudson to Madison and from Milo to Clinton, was also surveyed by helicopter, and the result is similar: In seven of the last 13 years, the state allotted more any-deer permits in WMD 17 than in any other district. In 2003, more than 15,000 any-deer permits were handed out in the zone. In 2010, 3,500 permits were allotted. According to the proposal, only 840 hunters would receive any-deer permits this fall.
That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of deer in WMD 17, Kantar reminded. It’s just that there can be more, and the management plan calls for insuring that’s the case.
“We have several units, not all units, where our objective is 20 deer per square mile, and we want it to be 20 deer per square mile,” Kantar said. “We want it to be busting out at that number. Our flights on District 17 showed that we were under that.”
Thus the permit decrease.
As a result, Kantar said, if the proposed number of any-deer permits is passed during the rule-making process, fewer deer will be shot this year.
“People have to understand and be patient. That’s being done by design, to give a boost to our best management districts so that hopefully in 2012, barring a terrible winter this winter, deer will blossom under that [management effort],” Kantar said.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that hunters in one part of the state don’t automatically behave the same way as hunters in another. Give out 100 any-deer permits in one WMD and you might see 10 adult does shot. In another district 100 permits might yield 20 does. That’s where the state’s “expansion factor” comes in: Varying from district to district and based on past results, it tries to determine how many permits have to be allotted to reach the target number of adult females culled from the herd.
In WMD 25, for instance, hunters shot one doe for every 15 any-deer permits allotted last year. That is extremely high, Kantar said. Statewide, the expansion factor has increased from a range of five to six permits allotted per adult doe harvested several years ago to between seven and eight today, Kantar said.
Overall, Kantar said he’s confident in the state’s permit process and said this year’s reduction is the right move.
“There’s a lot of information that goes into it. It’s not a perfect science at all. But it’s a damn good one,” Kantar said. “You have, essentially, 17 regional biologists and myself poring over a lot of information, listening to the public, you have guys that are out there deer hunting themselves, and you put it all together into this plan. That’s a pretty good way of going.”