July 22, 2018
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The most peculiar job I did as a Maine wildlife biologist? Count deer dung.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
A white-tailed deer stands at the edge of the woods in Lily Bay State Park in the town of Beaver Cove near Greenville.
By Ron Joseph, Special to the BDN
Updated:

On April 4, 1978, I celebrated my 26th birthday by counting deer dung as a recently hired wildlife biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The census is officially named “deer pellet-group surveys,” a cleverly worded euphemism. Gary Donovan, my supervisor, assigned me to work with Gene Dumont, an assistant regional wildlife biologist.

For two weeks, Dumont and I walked randomly selected transects in central Maine’s woods and fields, recording the number of deer droppings on data sheets. It was reassuring to know that biologists from Kittery to Fort Kent were also carrying clipboards and counting deer dung. The goal of our work was to help researchers in Bangor improve estimates of Maine’s deer population.

My training — no undergraduate or graduate wildlife class prepared me for the task — consisted of searching for fresh deer droppings in urban woods near our Augusta office. Standing on a deer trail, Dumont pointed to small cylindrical objects on a path.

“These are fresh droppings,” he said. “They’re dark brown and glisten like polished beads in sunlight.”

Minutes later, he leaned forward to examine additional ones, picked a dozen, placed half in my palm, and said, “these look like deer droppings, but they’re not.” He smelled the little brown balls and popped one into his mouth, leaving me speechless.

“These,” he said with a straight face, “are chocolate covered raisins. Don’t assume all that glitters is the gold we’re seeking. Snowshoe hare droppings are similar in shape and size.” (Dumont had planted the raisins 20 minutes before the training exercise.)

An hour later I was outfitted with a department uniform, new Bean boots, folding metal clipboard, pellet count data sheets, Silva compass and topographical maps — each one marked with straight pencil lines designating the survey routes.

We began the fieldwork by driving two vehicles from Augusta to Jefferson, parked one at our ending point on a secondary road and carpooled to the beginning point. Per instructions, Gene and I each walked 1 mile, approximately 1,000 feet apart, following the pre-assigned compass bearing penciled on maps. At 100-foot intervals, we dropped a 4-foot diameter hula hoop-like object and recorded the number of pellet groups within the circle. Each survey included 52 plots.

Later that spring, a compilation of survey data was fed into a convoluted mathematical equation — one slightly less complex than Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity formula. Calculations generated regional deer estimates per square mile. (Yearling antler beam diameters, percentage of consumed winter deer browse, body weights of hunter-killed deer, and other indices helped gauge the relationship of deer and their habitat.)

Regional deer numbers vary considerably: northern and western Maine supports fewer deer per square mile, owing to harsher winters and dearth of softwood winter shelter; whereas deer in central and southern Maine are more numerous because of milder winters and greater accessibility to browse.

Gerry Lavigne, now retired, served as Maine’s top deer biologist. Highly respected nationally, he knew better than most that estimating deer populations was an inexact science. Demonstrating a sense of humor on par with Dumont’s, Lavigne once hung from his office wall a framed photo of himself, sitting at his desk and consulting a Ouija board. The caption read: “Forecasting Maine’s white-tailed deer population trends.”

I followed Dumont’s truck to Jefferson on an unusually warm, sunny April day, and told myself that there were much worse jobs than counting deer dung. As a young budding biologist in 1978, I was thrilled to be part of a prestigious biological team. Little did I know that I’d soon confront a universal principle of wildlife ecology: Nothing is as constant as change itself.

My 1958 topographical map of Jefferson, I soon discovered as the fieldwork began, was outdated. Much of the map’s green shaded areas, indicating forest cover, had been cleared since the map was printed. I noted land use changes in the margin and pressed forward, adhering to the compass bearing.

Near the end of my mile-long walk in the woods, a clearing appeared in a green shaded area of the map. More unsettling, though, was the sound of music blaring from a radio, which meant that in all likelihood a house had been built where woods stood in 1958.

Ten minutes later, the sight of a woman, about my age, shocked me. She was sunbathing nude on a beach towel behind a home, radio by her side, and directly in line with my compass bearing. Head swimming and barely able to breathe, I retraced my steps several hundred feet.

From behind a large red oak, I pondered my dilemma and Dumont’s final words of instruction: “Remember, don’t deviate from the compass bearing or it will throw a wrench in the statistical analysis.”

I took no comfort in Paul McCartney’s lyrics emanating from the radio: “With a little luck we can make this whole damn thing work out.” If I failed to make the correct decision, I’d need more than luck to wiggle unscathed from this tricky conundrum. Thoughts of arrest, firing and a jail time swirled in my head.

What to do?

Do I disobey instructions by veering off course several hundred feet and damage my reputation as a dependable biologist or should I stay the course and pray the woman doesn’t hear me above the music?

From the protective cover of the forest I hastily decided to alert the young woman by yelling to Dumont, walking parallel 1,000 feet north of me. The strategy worked. All hell broke loose as she scrambled from the lawn into her home.

Heart pounding, I emerged from the woods 10 minutes later, stared at my compass and walked past matted grass, a blaring radio and a rumpled “Jaws” towel. The shark’s angry eye stared at me as I quickly searched for deer droppings in the 4-foot diameter circle. In my peripheral vision — I refused to look at the house — I felt the woman’s eyes boring into me from an upstairs window.

Cresting a field knoll, I spotted my vehicle and felt pride that my limited orienteering skills had delivered me to the target end point. Feelings of accomplishment, though, were short-lived: Version 2 of all hell breaking loose erupted when a sheriff arrived in a cruiser with blue lights flashing. Dumont, who could vouch for our fieldwork, was nowhere in sight.

Notwithstanding accidentally frightening a young woman, the day’s fieldwork had been blissful: the airwaves alive with hopeful songs of courting migrant birds; skunk cabbages unfurling their heads above patches of snow; coltsfoot and other early spring wild flowers blossoming. But facing the sheriff filled me with fear. It was my first “run-in” with the law: had I watched one too many westerns in which trigger-happy sheriffs shot suspects first and asked questions later? (That night I dreamt I was a chicken standing between a farmer clutching an ax and a bloodstained chopping block.)

Approaching the lawman, I ducked under a barbed wire fence. “Sir,” I said, “I can explain what happened.”

He snarled, “Start explaining. And it better be good.”

Pointing to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife patch on my shirt — I had never been more grateful to be in uniform — I explained that my job involved counting deer feces. The skeptical officer raised an eyebrow. Four-dozen deer dung data sheets convinced him that I was not a peeping Tom. He recorded my name, work address and phone number.

Hopping into his cruiser, he asked, “Is there anything else you’d like to say before I pay the woman a visit?”

I blurted, “Yes, please give her my sincerest apologies. Her house doesn’t appear on my 20-year-old topographical map.”

Around 2 p.m., Gary Donovan, my supervisor, listened to my story without word or expression. Dumont, who had joined me minutes after the sheriff departed, sat next to me for moral support. I delivered a rapid-fire volley of questions: “What will I do if the woman files charges with the sheriff or state police? Will this incident stain my career? Will I be fired or re-assigned to the hinterlands of Maine?”

Donovan let me twist several times on the proverbial rope before cracking a smile. “Joseph,” he said, “you handled your first assignment well. We’ll cross that bridge if or when we come to it. Now get back to work. There’s still time this afternoon to complete another deer transect.”

The sheriff never contacted my office.

Ten years later, at a state wildlife biologists’ conference in Bangor, deer pellet group surveys were a hotly debated topic. No surveys had been conducted in many years. Reinstating them was an agenda item — one strongly opposed by regional biologists and their assistants.

Mark Stadler, supervisor of the wildlife division, reminded conferees that pellet-group surveys fell under the umbrella category “Other Duties As Assigned,” a comment tantamount to tossing gasoline on a smoldering fire. Stadler tried dampening the firestorm with humor by recounting a survey in which he encountered a man meditating in a cow pasture in Mercer.

“The man sat cross-legged,” he said, “and when I walked past, he never opened an eye or twitched a muscle.”

The room erupted in laughter when biologist William Noble interjected, “The funniest part of your story, Mark, is that the meditating hippie had a better explanation for what he was doing than you did.” That day in a crammed conference room, the highly unpopular deer dung surveys were mothballed.

Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist. He lives in central Maine.

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