Maine sportsmen are lending Bambi a helping hand. The white-tailed deer population has precipitously declined in central, eastern and northern Maine this century — to the point, in fact, that fewer hunters now pursue the state’s most popular big-game animal.
“It’s no secret that the deer population is in tough shape in Maine,” said Gerry Lavigne, a retired state deer biologist.
“The deer herd in The County has been devastated,” said Caribou resident Dick Fortier, a Presque Isle Fish and Game Club director. “We need to bring the deer herd back.”
“There aren’t as many deer as there were,” said Don Kleiner, executive director of the Maine Professional Guides Association. A Maine Master Guide, he lives in Union. Deer hunting has been a Maine autumn tradition for generations, and many businesses are economically dependent on hunters in November.
“Guides and lodges depend on the deer season,” Kleiner said. “From the lodges’ standpoint, you’re paying your mortgage on a three-week [deer-hunting] season.”
While deer numbers remain adequate in southern Maine, the decline elsewhere has impacted outdoors-related businesses.
“The economy has taken an awful hit,” Fortier said. A hunting safety instructor, he credits the lack of deer for a steady decline in hunters attending classes.
“A lot of businesses in The County are hurting because of the lack of deer,” Fortier said.
“The economic impact has been tremendous. Fewer deer equal fewer hunters,” Kleiner said.
Sportsmen mention several factors when asked why deer numbers have declined. Fortier cited coyote predation and the lack of deer yards, enough feed for the deer herds, as well as bitter wintertime cold as the primary reasons why Aroostook deer numbers have plummeted.
“We’ve had a couple of tough winters in a row. That’s when the herds can’t get out [of the deer yards] to feed and come back,” he said. “The snowmobile trails are good for them [for traveling], but they’re good for the coyotes, too, to get into the deer yards.”
“There is the issue of coyote predation and loss of cover,” Kleiner said. “All this is exacerbated by the cycle of tough winters we’ve had, even down to the coast.”
According to Lavigne, bear and coyotes are serious predators of newborn fawns, with both predators often killing enough fawns to flatten out deer populations in specific areas.
Jerome Richard, education director for the Maine Bowhunters Association, questioned the impact of extended hunting on deer populations.
“With the bow, black-powder, [and] firearms seasons, deer face 10-12 weeks of hunting pressure,” he said. “Maybe we need to look at that, as well.”
Landowners often catch blame for not maintaining proper deer habitat, according to Richard.
“You can’t keep adding [hunting] pressure and telling the landowner he is the problem,” he cautioned. “We want to make sure everyone is looking at the whole picture.”
The state and various sportsmen’s groups are taking steps to bolster white-tailed populations.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has unveiled Maine’s Game Plan for Deer, which will focus on restoring deer populations in eastern, northern, and western Maine. The plan details five elements that are necessary to rebuild the northern, eastern, and western deer herd and summarizes the specific steps that must be undertaken to benefit deer populations.
To obtain a copy of Maine’s Game Plan for Deer, visit www.mefishwildlife.com, click “Maine’s Plan for Deer,” and then click “Maine’s Game Plan for Deer.”
The state’s deer plan anticipates extensive collaboration with nongovernment organizations, as well as hunters, Lavigne said.
“They (DIF&W) are right to reach out for help in restoring the deer herd. The logistics of improving habitat, reducing predation losses, and enforcing the game laws would be impossible without a lot of help from Maine hunters and landowners.
“What is needed is some way for all of [DIF&W’s] outdoor partners to network to exchange ideas, increase management skills and monitor progress in restoring Maine deer,” he said.
To accomplish these goals, sportsmen’s groups unveiled the Maine Deer Management Network
during a Jan. 21 press conference at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine offices in Augusta.
Organizations participating in the event included the Durham Rod and Gun Club, the Maine Bowhunters Association, the Maine Professional Guides Association, the Maine Trappers Association, the Norway-Paris Fish and Game Club, the Penobscot County Conservation
Association, the Pleasant River Fish and Game Club, the Presque Isle Fish and Game Club, and SAM.
According to Lavigne, the Maine Deer Management Network will focus on habitat management, predation management and hunting.
“Habitat management involves both summer and winter [deer] range,” Lavigne said. “The amount and quality of wintering habitat greatly affects deer survival. “There is a role for each of us to play … to improve deer habitat where we hunt,” he said.
Acquiring and preserving winter habitat would help.
Lavigne believes that controlling coyote numbers would directly benefit deer. Some 1,500-2,000
“coyotes are tagged annually” by Maine trappers, but another 4,000 coyotes should be removed before winter to benefit the wintering deer herd, he said.
A state-run predator-control program will target more remote areas that northern Maine trappers often cannot reach, Lavigne indicated. The DIF&W has identified 15 such remote deer yards; authorized personnel will focus on the pre-emptive removal of coyotes within a specified radius around each deer yard, he said.
Developing coyote hunting into the next big-game animal in the state would expand hunting opportunities and reduce coyote numbers, Lavigne said. He compared this potential hunting activity to the advent of bear hunting 40-50 years ago, where bears were considered nuisances … not worth the effort to hunt.
Lavigne described the Maine Deer Management Network as “a place where information can be exchanged and hunters can find out about different programs.”
The SAM website will be the resource for this, he said.
Members of the Maine Deer Management Network will find opportunities to strengthen the connection between hunters and the non-hunting public, Lavigne said. The network will educate hunters and the public about the impacts of hunting and outdoor recreation on Maine’s economy, he indicated.