Retired biologist Ron Joseph of Camden wrote a column Oct. 19 titled “Prioritize protecting deer wintering areas” that contained misleading statements and claims that beg for a response. He is right to focus on protecting habitat as a priority, but it is only a piece of the problem, and his dismissal of predator control reflects more of a philosophical position than one founded in science and common sense.
First, as leader of the largest statewide sportsmen group, let me set the record straight: Gov. Paul LePage and the commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife have been fully committed to restoring Maine’s deer herd. Both doors have been open to the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s concerns, and both have embraced long-needed changes in attitude and policy to restore deer wintering habitat in Maine.
Joseph cited the Maine Game Plan for Deer as an “impressive plan,” but what he didn’t mention was the significant historical statutory changes to the Land for Maine’s Future program that weight deer wintering habitat as a high priority for purchase and easement. This change alone will transcend future administrations and likely will define a significant piece of the LePage legacy.
I am reluctant to speak for the governor, but it has been my observation that he fully supports the changes made to protect deer habitat. He has concerns with borrowing in a poor economy; the sportsman’s alliance respects this concern.
The prototype project that will test the new Land for Maine’s Future changes is an 8,000-acre purchase currently being negotiated with Plum Creek and the Trust for Public Lands. The land in question encompasses the Cold Stream watershed, just north of The Forks, and it contains most of the brook trout spawning habitat serving the Upper Kennebec and Dead Rivers, as well as 2,000 acres of high-priority deer yard. The sportsman’s alliance and the administration are actively involved in this purchase, and I view it as the poster child for future habitat protection.
In addition to the Land for Maine’s Future changes, the alliance is working with the department to educate the public and change laws to protect deer against poor deer feeding practices. We are working with large construction companies to change reseeding practices to benefit deer. This change alone could mean hundreds of miles of new edge feed for deer, song birds, moose and bear.
Joseph was right with the statement that deer habitat in northern, eastern and western Maine has declined from 12 percent from the 1950s to 1970s to 4 percent today. What he failed to mention was that millions of these acres of lost habitat can be attributed to spruce budworm infestations of the 1980s. Instead of complaining and pointing fingers, we realize this forest is recovering, and the alliance will work to institute policies that bring wintering habitat to 8 percent of the land base.
Probably the most controversial strategy in the deer plan and the place we disagree with Joseph the most is the section dealing with predation. Any wildlife population can be suppressed, given sufficient effort. This is the foundation of wildlife management, and it applies to coyotes. If northern Maine deer populations are to recover, deer losses to coyote predation must be reduced.
Beginning in the fall of 2011, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began to manage coyote predation on deer. This is not a “bounty on coyotes,” as Joseph maintained. It is a more focused control effort in our most vulnerable and remote deer yards. The concept is straightforward: reduce the number and density of coyote packs in the vicinity of deer yards between October and January, before deer become stressed. Then, follow up in mid-to-late winter as needed. Coyote removals are accomplished using certified trappers, hunters and houndsmen, most of whom are paid for their time and vehicle expenses, not on a per-animal basis.
The department’s 2011-2012 coyote removal effort was a pilot project. Nine deer yards were selected across eastern, western and northern Maine. A total of 113 coyotes were removed from 500-square miles. This reduced approximately one-third of the coyotes inhabiting the area, at a cost of $15,000. The department’s budget for predation management during 2012-2013 is $100,000.
These dollars are not allocated to eradicate coyotes but rather to manage their numbers at lower, more beneficial levels. Concurrently, the sportsman’s alliance is leading the effort through educational seminars and our deer management network to advance coyote hunting and trapping as an ethical recreational and management activity. Joseph downplays the impact coyote predation exerts on northern Maine’s deer herd. He ignores the fact that deer losses to coyote predation exceed hunting losses by at least two to one. We believe that, when properly managed, coyotes can coexist with a healthy deer population, and we will continue to work for this balance.
Gerry Lavigne served for 30 years as the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s deer biologist. He currently is on the board of directors of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and he leads the alliance’s Deer Management Network. David Trahan is the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.