AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is known for its big deer, and Chandler Woodcock wants everybody to know that they’re out there. Just not everywhere. But he’s attending to that.
As the head custodian of all wild things that live on Maine’s land and in its fresh waters, Woodcock is leading efforts to restore the state’s cherished big game animal, which once roamed in greater abundance. Those efforts include some drastic measures, including limited night hunting of coyotes.
During an interview with The Associated Press, Woodcock pointed to a map of the state to illustrate where the problem lies. Envision a huge arc sweeping from the western edge of Maine to the east. Roughly along that curved rim, and to the north, the deer numbers have fallen off sharply because of a number of factors, including severe weather, less natural protection and predators. Woodcock calls it the “umbrella effect.”
While there are no clear estimates of Maine’s deer population at present, Woodcock said the number is believed to be down from its all-time peak by 50 percent. The severity of the decline is reflected in the deer-harvest totals, which dropped from 29,918 in 2006 to 20,063 in 2010.
For Woodcock, job No. 1 is rebuilding the deer herd, a priority often mentioned by his boss, Gov. Paul LePage. It also prompted a major study and action by the Legislature, which passed a bill calling for a number of moves, including identification and management of more deer yards, updating deer population goals, and controlling predators — particularly coyotes.
On the third point, Woodcock said, a working group including biologists and hunting experts will devise plans to control coyotes and choose participants in a limited night-hunting program this fall in targeted areas where the predators are a serious problem.
The department already has slashed any-sex deer permits to rebuild the herd by 46 percent to 26,390 for this coming fall.
Regaining the numbers will be a long-term project, the commissioner of the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department said.
“You don’t replenish the deer herd in a year,” he said. “There has to be some patience, so we’re looking at a 10-year project.”
Beyond rebuilding sheer numbers, the idea is to bolster Maine’s reputation, which long has been “big woods, big deer,” said Woodcock. The big deer are still out there, he said, citing one hunting camp where four big deer — each more than 200 pounds and one of them 260 pounds — were taken last fall.
“Maine’s hunting heritage is significant, and perception drives outdoor activities,” said Woodcock. “If you think it’s going to rain, you’re not going to go canoeing. If you think we don’t have a whole lot of deer, you’re not going to go hunting.”
Maine has 146,000 resident, licensed hunters, and about 30,000 nonresidents come to the state for big game. Together, they represent $280 million to the state’s economy and account for 4,500 jobs.
A lifelong hunter, angler and outdoorsman who has canoed the Allagash and St. John rivers, Woodcock is a former high school teacher and basketball coach in his hometown of Farmington and other towns. He served in the state Senate and was the Republican candidate for governor in 2006, losing to Democrat John Baldacci.
He is upbeat about the critical issue of landowner relations, which he says are generally good, and cites efforts to reel in youths and women to keep up the numbers of hunters and anglers.
Compared to deer, the Maine moose population is more stable, allowing the state to increase the number of permits by 660 last fall to 3,862, said Woodcock. The game department also recently made changes in the annual moose-permit drawing to make it fairer to those who are longtime participants.
Woodcock acknowledges a gradual shift in emphasis within the department’s constituency from consumptive sports to recreational outdoor activities such as all-terrain vehicle riding, game watching and snowmobiling.
“Fifty years ago, people didn’t talk about kayaking,” said Woodcock. But his department is committed to serving what the commissioner calls a “natural evolution” in outdoor priorities.
In the fishery, Woodcock’s main priority is protecting the brook trout, noting that 96 percent of the native brook trout in the continental states are in Maine. He also wants to expand landlocked salmon opportunities.