June 21, 2018
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Health of deer herd tale of 2 Maines

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

In his previous life — before he became the biologist charged with managing Maine’s deer herd for the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife — Lee Kantar loved backcountry skiing.

Now? Not so much.

“This job has ruined that for me,” Kantar said with a wry chuckle on Friday morning. “As a backcountry skier, you want tons of snow, but as a deer biologist, you don’t want to see any snow.”

Deep snow makes movement difficult for deer, after all, makes them work harder to find food and makes them more vulnerable to predators.

Now, Kantar monitors weekly reports from the state’s deer yards, checks the weather reports and hopes for the best.

“Any time it doesn’t snow, it’s a good day,” he said.

Kantar said state data-entry clerks are still busy compiling data on the recently completed deer season, and he said the state has received about 80 percent of the tagging booklets thus far. That, he says, means it’s nearly time for those clerks to start tracking down the booklets that haven’t been returned so that the state’s biologists can get a clearer idea of how Maine’s hunters fared during the fall.

Kantar, his fellow biologists and thousands of hunters spend plenty of time paying close attention to the plight of a diminished deer herd in northern and eastern parts of the state.

Elsewhere, the herd is more stable and much easier to manipulate.

And you thought the “Two Maines” concept had nothing to do with hunting? Think again.

Glass half full

Kantar said the state’s landscape and habitat have changed over the years, and along with those changes, the state’s wildlife species — deer, moose, rabbits and assorted predators — have adapted … or struggled.

The changes in northern and eastern Maine, in particular, have been beneficial for some species, but troublesome for deer over the last several years.

In southern and central Maine, however, the deer herd has grown substantially, Kantar said.

Looking closely at 10 Wildlife Management Districts in those southern and central parts of the state illustrates how much of an impact the state can have in managing the deer herd, Kantar said.

“What’s interesting is, if you look back from the ’80s to the ’90s to today, there are a couple of major things that have taken place,” Kantar said. “One is the switch from either-sex hunting in the ’80s to the any-deer permit system in 1986. And the other thing that’s a parallel to that, is the public goals and objectives for those ar-eas from the 1985-1999 era to the 2000-2015 era.”

The DIF&W manages deer according to a 15-year master plan that is formulated after listening to plenty of public feedback.

In those 10 WMDs, Kantar said, during the late 1970s and 1980s, the wintering deer population was between 80,000 and 100,000 animals.

“The goals back then, from 1985 to 1999, were to essentially grow the deer population,” Kantar said.

And grow the population they did.

With the advent of the any-deer permit system in 1986, the former deer managers — Kantar was not yet on board — were able to manipulate the size of the herd by protecting more adult does.

Issue more any-deer permits, and more does would be shot. Issue fewer, and more would live to give birth to fawns in the spring.

“By 1986, when we started the any-deer permit system, those Wildlife Management Districts were looking at about 12 deer per square mile,” Kantar said. “That’s all we had.”

By controlling the annual harvest of does, state biologists were able to double the number of deer in those WMDs over the next 15 years.

“By 1999, we were at about 28 deer per square mile in those areas, so we basically went from less than 85,000 deer to close to 200,000 deer [in those areas over that span],” Kantar said.

Then the public working group that establishes those long-range goals re-evaluated and decided to scale back the population a bit, aiming for 15 to 20 deer per square mile in those zones.

“The three driving things when you look at the stated goals and objectives are, ‘We want to reduce vehicle collisions with deer in southern and central Maine; we want to reduce the potential for people to contract Lyme disease; and thirdly, there’s certainly concern about damage to people’s ornamental [plants] and shrubs, and in parts of southern and coastal Maine, the forest itself,” Kantar said.

To respond, the department issued more any-deer permits in those zones. The result: Kantar estimates that in 2007, before two straight harsh winters, the population had been cut to about 20 deer per square mile.

“I guess you’d say we’re maxing out what the public has asked us to do,” Kantar said.

Some DIF&W critics and amateur biologists maintain that the any-deer permit system is a faulty way to manage the state’s herd. Kantar maintains it’s one important tool to utilize when possible. The numbers in zones where the DIF&W has the flexibility to utilize any-deer permits seem to bear him out.

And for those hunters in southern and central zones who say they’ve been seeing fewer deer than they did in the early 1990s, Kantar says they’re probably right, for two reasons.

“By design, there are fewer deer out there [than there have been historically in some southern and central zones],” Kantar said. “[And] by all the anecdotal information that’s come through, it certainly was a poor hunting season as far as conditions were concerned.”

Glass half empty

Then there’s the other Maine, including the 18 northern and eastern Wildlife Management Districts where the deer herd has diminished to the point where the state feels it can’t afford to lose any adult does to hunters.

In those districts, hunters must target antlered deer.

Therefore, in those districts, what may be the DIF&W’s most potent management tool — tinkering with the number of any-deer permits it allots — is not an option.

Statewide, officials have drastically reduced the number of any-deer permits allotted over the past three years, in large part due to two straight harsh winters that devastated the herd in parts of the state.

In 2007, the state issued 66,275 any-deer permits. In 2008, that was reduced to 51,850. Last year, just 43,385 any-deer permits were handed out.

“If you look at just the any-deer permit system itself, it has functioned very well and will continue as far as regulating the doe harvest in areas where we can support that,” Kantar said. “And that’s an important nuance to this whole thing, because people will say, ‘If we’re going bucks-only, it’s not working.’ Well, that’s really not true, because once you’ve gone to bucks-only, you’ve determined that there are forces out there that are killing deer, that are all combined, so you go to bucks-only.”

And the solutions in those cases are more difficult to grasp, or to change.

Biologists can’t change the weather. They don’t have the power to legislate deer habitat protection. And the much-maligned predator, the coyote, is only one cog in a much bigger natural machine.

The state’s biologists will meet this week to address a number of strategies, including those that deal with habitat and predator control, and plot a course that they hope will help deer in the areas where they have been most heavily impacted.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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