Claybrook Mountain Lodge, owned by Pat and Greg Drummond, has attracted deer hunters to the Bigelow Preserve region since the mid-1970s. Reliable income from hunters helped the couple send their three daughters to college. But the Drummonds have not added an antlered deer to the buckboard since 2008.
Renowned Cobb’s Pierce Pond Camps, 30 miles north of Claybrook Lodge, is closed to deer hunters for the second straight November. Declining deer populations and deer hunters are negatively impacting the Drummonds, other Maine sporting lodge owners and Maine’s rural economy. Hunters are traveling to other states with healthier deer populations.
To address the issue of declining deer populations, in 2011 the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife published “Maine’s Game Plan For Deer.” The impressive booklet identifies factors impacting deer populations in eastern, western and northern Maine. Diminishing number and quality of deer wintering areas are the primary reasons for the decline in deer in much of Maine. Protecting deer wintering areas, 95 percent of which is on private land, is the top priority to rebuilding Maine’s deer herd. To survive Maine’s harsh winters, deer require mature conifer forest cover. Documenting deer wintering areas on the ground is the easy part. Protecting the areas is an entirely different activity altogether.
Regulatory zoning for deer wintering areas between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s inflamed tension and mistrust between forestland owners and IF&W. State regulation of economically valuable spruce-fir habitat on private property resulted in two lawsuits before the Maine Supreme Court. In the mid-1990s, to ease the two-decade old battle over deer management on private property, IF&W decided to develop voluntary landowner cooperative agreements in lieu of regulating deer wintering areas. It was a puzzling decision given that 40 years earlier landowner agreements had failed to protect deer.
Cooperative agreements are failing again today. Private forest landowner economics then and now trump deer wintering area management considerations. “Plum Creek has not sustainably cut timber in each deer yard on their property north of Claybrook Lodge and near Cobb’s Pierce Pond Camps,” according to Drummond, a registered Maine Guide.
Gov. Paul LePage and IF&W Commissioner Chandler Woodcock tout the success of a few deer wintering area voluntary landowner cooperative agreements – those in which timber harvest and deer management have been mutually achieved. However, the majority of forest landowners refuse to enter into cooperative agreements or stubbornly disregard nonbinding cooperative agreements. Orion Timberlands recently ignored IF&W’s request to not cut 300 acres of cedar within a 1,600-acre deer wintering area cooperative agreement. According to IF&W, harvest goals could have been met by cutting trees on company lands adjacent to one of Aroostook County’s most important deer yards.
The Forest Products Council has fallen far short on its pledge to promote member participation in cooperative agreements. According to Mark Stadler, former director of the wildlife division at IF&W, “The Forest Products Council committed to help IF&W enroll forest landowners in cooperative deer yard management, yet landowner response has been lukewarm at best, and many balk at participation.”
Since deer-yard regulation was mothballed in the mid-1990s, the number and quality of deer yards have steadily declined. Maine had faith that landowners would work cooperatively to manage private lands for wood and deer production. That good faith has not paid off for deer, hunters or those whose livelihoods depends on healthy deer populations.
To date, large portions of Maine still lack adequate wintering habitat to sustain traditional deer population levels. Deer wintering habitat comprised 12 percent of total deer habitat in northern, western and eastern Maine from the 1950s to the early 1970s. That number has dropped to 4 percent in 2011.
An increase in deer numbers will depend on increasing the amount and quality of deer winter habitats. The tension that exists between private-property rights and the state’s responsibility to conserve and manage a publicly-owned deer resource continues.
If Maine is serious about rebuilding deer populations, as is the stated goal of “Maine’s Game Plan For Deer,” it must move beyond the issue of private property rights and protect the largest, most critically important deer wintering areas through fee title purchase and conservation easements.
LePage claims to be a proponent of restoring the state’s deer herd. The governor should back up his words by supporting the Land For Maine’s Future program, which is a bond item on next month’s state ballot. So far, he has been unwilling to do so, even though this program consistently receives wide support by voters across the state. Instead, the governor and Woodcock are guilty of deflecting attention from a failing cooperative agreement program by promoting a one-year, $100,000 coyote bounty program. Coyote control is analogous to placing an elastic bandage on a compound fracture.
If you think coyotes are the primary reason northern Maine has fewer deer, please consider this: Minnesota and Michigan deer herds are much healthier than Maine’s. Minnesota and Michigan winters are as difficult as Maine’s. Deer in both of those states must avoid being eaten by not only coyotes but also wolves.
So the logical question is: What are Minnesota and Michigan doing differently to maintain healthy deer populations? The answer: Both states prioritize protecting deer wintering areas through land purchases, conservation easements and promoting timber harvests that also take into consideration the needs of deer.
A coyote bounty is a knee-jerk reaction that will not succeed in bolstering Maine’s deer herd. Black bears account for 20 percent to 60 percent of Maine’s fawn mortality. What’s next, a legislative bounty on bears?
Ron Joseph, of Camden, is a retired Maine biologist.