June 23, 2018
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What happens to deer when Maine’s snow pattern isn’t predictable?

Corky Pinette | BDN
Corky Pinette | BDN
Two deer peer at a photographer as they wait to feed in Allagash near the end of a harsh winter in March of 2009.
By John Holyoke, BDN Staff

Many Maine winters hold to a predictable pattern: The folks in northern Maine shovel a lot more snow than those people who live along the New Hampshire border.

This year, however, that pattern hasn’t held true. The nearly weekly snowstorms that have pummeled many parts of the state — including the southern coast — have missed northern Aroostook County.

The state’s head deer biologist says that mixed bag of weather could lead to an equally mixed prognosis for deer survival across the state.

“Right now we’re in the throes of a rugged winter for the southern part of the state, central and Down East,” said Lee Kantar, a biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “In the north country, where I was just flying [while conducting research on moose], there’s maybe a foot of snow or less.”

In other parts of the state, there’s more. A lot more, in fact.

Kantar said that no matter how much snow an area gets, an important factor in deer survival is habitat: How much good wintering habitat is there for the deer that are present?

In different regions, Kantar explained, deer require more or less winter habitat because of the conditions that generally prevail, and the pressure that’s put upon that habitat by the deer herd.

“There’s some sort of continuum between the south and the north as to the amount of area that a deer needs,” Kantar said. “Some of that’s based on how much time they need to spend in a deer wintering area in a typical winter.”

In that regard, to steal a popular catch-phrase, there are certainly “two Maines.”

“As we know, up north winters can be awfully long. But down south, they can be really short,” Kantar said. “In the far-south coastal area you could have restrictive conditions for only a few weeks in the winter. You’re not going to have that this year. And that puts a burden on those animals.”

Kantar explained that “restrictive conditions” exist when the snow is deep enough to keep deer from traveling efficiently to their feeding areas.

In most cases, the threshold for “restrictive” conditions is about a foot of snow, he said.

When restrictive conditions exist for 90 to 100 days in a given winter, fawn mortality will spike.

As part of its annual monitoring of winter severity, Kantar tracks snow on the ground in towns and Unorganized Territory across the state.

On Friday, those totals, which didn’t include the most recent storm, illustrated this winter’s trend.

East of Baxter State Park, there was only 8 inches of snow on the ground in the open. Near the Dead River, there was 16 inches. Monticello, in Aroostook County, had 13 inches. Down in Canaan, in central Maine, the total was 23 inches. And in York, on the southern coast, 18.6 inches was on the ground before this storm.

Kantar said that the lack of snow in northern Maine is good news for that area’s struggling deer herd. To the south, though, deer are coping with abnormally harsh conditions in areas where large wintering habitat areas are rarely necessary.

“Deer need to have protection from the snow and the wind and the cold. They still need to feed and they need to move to those feeding areas,” Kantar said. “You need deer to move to those feeding areas so basically they can break trail for each other.”

In much of the state, including the Bangor area, that easy access to feeding areas doesn’t exist this winter.

“You try to get across my yard as a deer right now and it’s going to be pretty rugged going,” said Kantar, who works in Bangor.

If the current trend continues, the impact of this winter also will be felt by deer hunters.

One of the state’s key tools in its deer management efforts is determining how many adult female deer it allows hunters to harvest.

After harsh winters, the number of “any-deer” permits that are allotted to hunters is generally reduced. In 2010, any-deer permits were awarded in only 13 of the state’s 29 Wildlife Management Districts. In the other districts, the deer herd is not meeting management goals and the DIF&W did not allow hunters to shoot does.

That could well be the case this year, Kantar said.

“We take a very, very conservative approach [in allowing doe harvest through the any-deer permit system],” Kantar said. “If this winter shapes up to be rough, it’s going to be, again, very, very conservative based on the data that we have.

“If the winter continues like this, it will obviously likely lead to a decrease that could be significant of any-deer permits in districts that have them,” Kantar said.

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