BANGOR, Maine — Ever since two consecutive harsh winters devastated the state’s deer herd — especially those animals that lived in northern Maine — hunters have been impatiently waiting for good news.
Here it is: The herd is on the rebound, and the man who has served as the state’s top deer biologist said he expects the situation to continue to improve.
An important thing to consider, according to Lee Kantar of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is that deer-rich areas of the state aren’t the only places where the herd has seen rapid growth. That trend is also taking place in far northern Maine, where the fall 2012 buck harvest reached 203 animals, a level unseen in that region since 1963.
The DIF&W announced last week that the state’s total deer harvest in 2012 was 21,365 deer, which marked a 13 percent increase over the 18,839 deer taken in 2011. Even more impressive was the increase in the number of bucks that were taken statewide: 15,271 adult male deer were tagged in 2012, which was an increase of 2,473, or 19 percent.
Kantar said some new data have been derived through a study that has determined the age of harvested animals by looking at their teeth.
“We knew we took a big hit in 2008 with our yearling age class, but we’ve confirmed this with the tooth-age data,” Kantar said. “We’ve had, it looks like two age classes that were much reduced, even in our best deer habitat, which wasn’t really surprising.”
But four consecutive mild winters, counting the most recent one, have helped deer survive the winter. And the fact that the deer that would have been most affected back in 2008 and 2009 are now older contributes to a changing scenario for deer.
Typically there aren’t many 4-, 5- or 6-year-old deer on a landscape, as many are shot by hunters or die of natural causes. Now, four years removed from those harsh winters, the total deer population is less dependent on those age classes that were decimated in the winters of 2008 and 2009. Add in the fact that state biologists have been very conservative in allowing the harvest of female deer (which can typically only be shot by hunters holding an any-deer permit), and the recovery-in-progress makes sense.
“Last year demonstrated that we’re getting back to a harvest that we’d seen prior to 2008,” Kantar said. “That’s a really critical element, because there seems like there’s a lag time for people to fully understand the positive gains that we have.
“We’re expecting bigger and better things in 2013, but in 2012 in southern Maine we were back at capacity. In the far southern part of the state, in Wildlife Management District 20, we had a record buck harvest,” he said.
Add that to the marked improvement in WMD 3 north of Caribou in Aroostook County and hunters have good reason to be optimistic, Kantar said.
“We talk about two different Maines, but in the north country we’ve had four below-average winters up there,” Kantar said.
The biologist said he hopes hunters hear this news and start returning to the northern parts of the state to look for bucks that used to draw throngs of hunters in November.
“The bottom line is that there are bucks out there in the north country as well as down south, and people should be going to the big woods to hunt,” Kantar said. “Obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement, but there always will be. But let’s look at the glass half-full side of things, which is, we’ve bounced back to prior to 2008 winter numbers, there’s a lot of opportunity out there, and in fact, there’s going to be some recommendations to open up some any-deer permits in the north country as well, in three districts that we’re looking at right now.”
That’s right: Kantar said the DIF&W is considering offering limited any-deer permits in northern Maine for the first time in several years.
“That’s good news because the biologists and the wildlife division feel, as a whole, that we’re closing in on short-term population objectives, we can handle this, this is a good thing for a variety of reasons, and this is a good thing from a population point of view,” he said.