Mainers love their deer. And according to the draft big game management plan released recently by state wildlife officials, they also say they know plenty about the species that most of the state’s hunters choose to target.
In fact, in a 2016 public consultation conducted in advance of that plan, only 3 percent of Maine residents said they knew nothing about deer, while 75 percent said they either knew a great deal or a moderate amount.
That Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife plan will guide management efforts of four big game species — deer, bear, moose and turkey — over the next 10 years.
And Nathan Bieber, who has served less than a year as the state’s head deer biologist, said the presence of so many deer “experts” simply means that there are plenty of people who want the state’s management efforts to succeed.
“This is the [species] that people know about. It certainly is a challenge, but I think that there is some truth to that, in that the public does know a lot about deer, and that provides me a lot of opportunity to field phone calls and just talk with people and see what they’re thinking and feeling about the way deer management is going,” Bieber said. “So, it can be a formidable task, trying to balance all that, and trying to focus on the important things, but it’s still a great source of information and what’s going on on the landscape.”
According to the plan, 91 percent of licensed hunters had headed out for a deer hunt over the previous five years, and 82 percent of those were either “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with their experience.
The three stated goals of the 10-year plan:
— Maintain a healthy, sustainable deer population that provides opportunities for hunting and viewing with minimal negative impacts on natural ecosystems.
— Ensure public satisfaction with Maine’s deer population.
— Increase public understanding of deer biology, ecology and management.
Two of those goals have a common theme, Bieber said.
“Of the three main objectives of this new plan, two of them are public-oriented. They’re about public satisfaction and public knowledge,” Bieber said. “We’re going to offer more opportunities for the public to offer input into issues like [coyote management]. If there’s an issue where a particular program isn’t achieving the goal that the public wants to see, that will give us more opportunity to key in on things like that.”
Bieber said a big difference in the new plan is that biologists will spend less time trying to meet predetermined population goals, and more time focusing on the overall health of the deer herd.
“I think maybe the biggest thing we’re going to see is we’re kind of moving away from these management strategies that are geared toward achieving a certain number of animals or a certain density of animals,” Bieber said. “We’re trying to strive more toward animals that are healthy, at a level that is socially acceptable, at a level where they’re not doing damage to habitat.”
The new plan will offer biologists more flexibility, and will allow them to target particular issues that occur in specific areas, but might not be a problem over an entire Wildlife Management District.
“If your goal is more to have healthy deer and have socially acceptable number of deer, maybe you can respond to the smaller scale issues [like localized overpopulation] without butting up against a district-wide goal that in some cases has held you back in the past,” Bieber said.
Bieber said hunters and wildlife watchers can play a more active role in wildlife management over the next decade as well.
“I think it’s a big deal for us to give more opportunities for the public to be involved in what’s going on. I think a lot of public dissatisfaction comes from people not knowing what’s happening, more than not understanding what a plan’s doing,” Bieber said. “They just don’t know what’s going on. I think that really bothers some people. If you can get them on board with what you’re doing, I think that serves our purpose even better.”
According to a timeline included in the plan, Maine’s first management decision regarding its deer herd took place in 1830. That’s when an actual season — Sept. 1 through Dec. 31 — was set. It took another 43 years before the state set its first bag limit on deer: 3 per hunter per year.
Despite the fact that the state has been managing the species for so long, there’s still work to do, Bieber said.
“It’s always going to be an effort to get exactly where you want to be, so the deer are good, so the people are good, so the biologists to be on top of things,” Bieber said. “It’s taken 200 years to do it and we’re still not quite there.”
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