AUGUSTA, Maine — With hopes of rebuilding a deer herd that has shrunk sharply in parts of Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has signed legislation to implement strategies that include restoring habitats that shelter the animals in the winter and thinning out the population of their main predator, the coyote.
One concern that has prompted the new laws signed Monday is that areas known as “deer yards” have been lost due to logging and to spruce budworms, pests that have killed large tracts of forest.
Deer yards are stands of trees — typically cedar, spruce or hemlock — that protect deer from the snow and cold. Deer venture from these natural shelters to feeding areas.
Wildlife officials say one of the best ways of protecting deer yards is through cooperative working agreements with large timberland owners to leave those areas intact. The agreements would not be required, and they could come in the form of easements or even sales of areas containing deer yards.
The loss of deer, which are central to Maine’s hunting tradition, has been a major worry especially in eastern, northern and western regions of the state. Deer density in those regions has plummeted to one to four per square mile, a fraction of the optimum number, while it hovers around 40-50 in southern and some coastal areas and islands, said David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.
The optimum number can vary and is based on how many deer a given piece of land can sustain, but is usually between the extremes found in Maine, Trahan said.
Maine’s deer herd is estimated to be in the 250,000 range, with annual harvests on the decline to about 19,000. The number of deer killed by hunters exceeded 28,000 annually in the 1980s.
The disappearance of deer in much of the state has had an effect on hunting, which “is vital to our heritage and economy,” said Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, sponsor of a new law that expands the mission of a state deer-management fund to include preserving deer yards, in addition to its traditional focus on controlling coyotes.
Deer hunting and viewing in Maine generate at least $200 million per year in spending on guide and outfitting services, hunting camps, motels, restaurants and related businesses, Burns said.
“Maine has traditionally been famous for its big bucks, but as this No. 1 game animal becomes scarce, hunters will find Maine less desirable,” he said.
To support the new deer management fund, $2 of each $5 collected in “tagging” fees hunters pay after killing a deer must be deposited in the fund. The new law also establishes a check-off on the hunting license application for donations to the fund.
The law authorizes fish and game officials to impose limits on the feeding of deer by the public when it’s believed that feeding is having a detrimental effect on deer. Examples are placing food across the highway from the woods, which puts them in danger of being struck by a vehicle, or feeding them the wrong foods, such as hay or whole corn, which take too much energy to digest.
A separate bill adds $100,000 to the fish and game department’s predator control program. With money left over from this year, the department will have $150,000 to reduce the coyote population in specific areas of the state.
Maine does not offer bounties for the hunting and trapping of coyotes. The department instead determines specific areas most hard-hit by the predators and assists in bringing in hunters and trappers to lower their numbers.
Sporting groups see a proposal to borrow $5 million to preserve forests and farmland as another tool to protect deer yard. The proposal awaited LePage’s signature in order to be sent to voters for authorization.