CONTRIBUTORS

Lack of deer yards are cause of low deer numbers

Posted Feb. 25, 2013, at 2:12 p.m.

If bones from dead deer could talk, they would reveal compelling stories. In late March 1989, snowmobilers reported several dead and frozen deer in a Canada Falls deer yard near historic Pittston Farm, 50 miles northwest of Greenville. As the state’s regional wildlife biologist at the time, I investigated the report and found 10 dead deer.

Curious to know if the deer had died from coyote predation or other natural causes, I broke open the femur (thigh) bones with a hatchet to examine the bone marrow. Bone marrow of healthy deer resembles the color and consistency of thick hand cream. During late winter, as deer exhaust all remaining energy reserves, their bone marrow turns the color and consistency of red jelly. Lethargic deer with swollen faces and visible rib cages are signs of very poor health.

Red jelly-like bone marrow in eight of 10 deer indicated severe malnutrition. A ninth deer died of a fractured hip caused by bullet fragments. Coyotes had eaten the deer based on tracks and scat, but did they kill the deer or merely perform euthanasia on animals weakened by inadequate food and shelter?

The question is more relevant today than it was in 1989 because the quality and quantity of deer yards has plummeted since then. Winter is the bottleneck of deer survival in northern Maine. Poor-quality deer-wintering habitat further compromises their survival. Coyotes kill healthy deer, but emaciated ones are easy prey in late winter.

Purchasing deer yards outright or protecting them with conservation easements — with binding timber harvest regulations — are the only viable long-term solutions to resolving Maine’s deer woes. Many hunters claim that designated deer yards without deer are solely attributable to coyote predation. During the winter of 1989, timber company foresters brought to my attention six designated deer yards without deer in the Moosehead Lake region.

Investigations revealed that three of these deer yards had been mistakenly mapped and were subsequently dropped from state regulation. The other three deer wintering areas lacked deer because timber companies had clear-cut around them, creating an island of spruce and fir forest surrounded by three- to four-foot deep snowfields. With no access to neighboring forests, deer abandoned the yards rather than remain vulnerable to coyote predation.

One winter evening, a Great Northern Paper Company forester surprised me by knocking on my house door. We had spent the day together with his boss, but in the woods he could not talk confidentially with me. He said the deer yard we had surveyed earlier that day supported winter deer for as long as he could remember. The forester explained that against his wishes, his boss instructed him to supervise a summer harvesting crew that cut all the timber around the deer yard.

He then did something unprecedented and bold. From long cardboard tubes, he extracted forest cover maps showing closely guarded future forestry operations. He proceeded to identify deer yards unknown to the state. He did this because he wanted those areas protected from being clear-cut. He said, “I like hunting deer, and we can work cooperatively with the state to harvest trees and have deer, too. These are not mutually exclusive goals.”

The Chub Pond deer yard in Hobbstown, south of Jackman, supported deer each winter from the 1940s until the early 1980s when Scott Paper Company clear-cut healthy trees abutting the deer yard, claiming it was a spruce budworm salvage cut. According to a Scott forester, also a deer hunter, deer abandoned the yard the following winter.

The demise of deer yards is the reason why deer are struggling in northern, western and eastern Maine. Lawmakers, under increasing pressure to “do something about declining deer numbers,” are considering extending coyote trapping seasons to help the struggling deer population.

However, passing LD 372 and other coyote control bills is as misguided as placing a Band-Aid on a compound fracture. The Legislature can enact infinite coyote-control bills, but the deer herd will not recover until the Legislature makes deer-yard protection a priority.

Ron Joseph, of Camden, is a retired Maine wildlife biologist and deer hunter.

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