Deer abound throughout the northeast U.S. but are disappearing in northern Maine. The problem is not that deer have too many contacts with northern Mainers. The problem is they have too few. We need to bring back the deer herd as evidence that northern Maine is once again the place where a prosperous economy and conservation are wed.
Tracking deer as a kid, researching deer habitat as part of my Ph.D. dissertation in northern Maine, participating in dead deer counts in deer yards in the spring on behalf of a governor who was struggling to decide who should manage the herd, and separating out hunting issues from gun rights in the current campaign have all helped frame my thinking on how best to revitalize northern Maine.
The problem is that deer — like Mainers who live off the forests, fields and streams — are becoming Maine’s latest endangered species. We know why. The dominant problem for the deer herd is the disappearance of “edge.” Edge is the contact zone between winter cover and protection from extreme weather and the availability of undergrowth and winter food. The more miles of edge per square mile of property, the higher the carrying capacity of the land for deer, the lower the winter mortality, the healthier and larger the herd.
The reversion of pasture and cropland to forests and the recent obsession of forest practice mandates with selective cutting have together systematically reduced cover, forage and edge in northern Maine, greatly contributing to the decimation of the snowshoe hare and white-tailed deer. Weak laws on predator control coupled with an anti-gun, anti-trapping, antihunting camp, anti-private land ownership sentiment permeating Augusta, creates an adversarial atmosphere for hunters, Mainers who live off the land and for the deer — Maine’s neglected wildlife species.
Maine’s massive state bureaucracy is becoming Bambified, blind to the savagery of a coyote tearing apart a winter-weakened pregnant doe, believing rural Maine would be at peace if man would just leave it alone. Half of the townships are regulated by an unrepresentative Land Use Regulation Commission composed of absentee appointees from faraway places.
While rural forestland owners and farmers champion rigorous regulation, their incentive to invest in their capital-intensive industries is greatly inhibited by unnecessary and unproductive state regulatory uncertainty, risk and delay. The consequence of all this is not just the driving away of the landowners, but the driving away of the deer.
Most Mainers support Maine’s rural traditions. Most feel an elemental loss when pasture grows up to brush, a hunting lodge is boarded up and the right to bear arms is questioned. Most feel a loss when there is no 14-year-old with a slug in his 20-gauge shotgun sitting on a stump out by the old cellar hole the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when the deer are gone. The good news is we can stem and reverse such elemental loss if state government is willing to change.
State government can rewrite the forest practices to allow for “edge” and improved habitat again. State funds to buy out private landowners can be redirected toward protecting critical deer yards. Predator control policies can be expanded. The Department of Environmental Protection’s rigid “prescriptive” dictates can be replaced with “incentive” regulations that allow farmers and foresters creative uses of Environmental Protection Agency-approved insecticides. The excesses of delegating policy formulation to a nonaccountable bureaucracy can be reversed by expanding the practice of returning draft regulations and policies to the Legislature and governor for ratification.
Unorganized township residency can become a requirement of appointment to the Land Use Regulation Commission board and the commission itself can be tied more closely to local counties and communities. Red tape for hunting camps and leases could be minimized. Tree growth-favored tax treatment could be conditioned upon allowing hunting, trespass and public access. Sunday hunting could be allowed in unorganized towns. The right to bear arms should never be questioned, just as it says in the Maine Constitution.
We need this dialogue to bring back the rural Maine economy. We need to win one for the deer.
Bill Beardsley is the former president of Husson University. He is a Republican candidate for governor.