I thank George Smith for his recent blog post about deer and how the next spruce budworm epidemic might be managed to support the northern herd. He knows there’s no good news. However, printing industry’s “plan” without translating the academic language means the bad news isn’t clear. I volunteer to clarify.
Savvy professionals from the university want to help craft deer survival strategies for those harvesting the forest. But because the strategies are voluntary, deer are in trouble. Landowners ignored the last round of voluntary deer guidelines. Now, barely 1 percent of over 9 million commercial acres are fit for deer survival.
Deer yards used to be protected by law. Biologists documented them, and the old Land Use Regulation Commission made them off limits to harvesting. There were genuine cases in which the stand became seriously overmature and fell down. More often, land around deer yards was harvested, leaving deer on a winter island.
With snow deep on denuded lands around their refuge, deer couldn’t forage outside the yard. They starved. Recently, owners have cut swaths through documented deer wintering areas. Now vulnerable to snow drifts and wind that drops old trees, the yard becomes useless to wintering deer.
Years ago, vowing better management, landowners offered up cooperative agreements to manage deer on their land. They worked with biologists to allow a mix of yards and travel corridors. When these lands were sold, new owners — such as Plum Creek, Maine’s largest industrial landowner — refused to cooperate.
Unfortunately, the state didn’t fight back to protect our deer. From salamanders to moose, all Maine wildlife is public property. Since the demise of cooperative agreements there has been no genuine enforcement allowed by landowners and no courage by state agencies.
Before decoding the voluntary budworm and deer plan, let’s be clear. Barely 1 percent of Maine’s industrial forest is managed for mature habitat: deer, goshawks, marten and other species need older trees. There are precious few left, and the plan to save habitat during the expected budworm outbreak is voluntary.
“As far as I know, the agency hasn’t reached an agreement on deer wintering area management with any additional large landowners since the plan was presented in 2011,” Smith writes. Translation: Ignoring a voluntary plan, large landowners continue cutting deer yards.
“Currently, about 20 percent of DWAs [deer wintering areas] in northern Maine are at high risk of spruce budworm infestation,” the plan reads. Translation: What little is left for deer will attract budworm damage.
The plan reveals that more than 80 percent of the forest in deer yards — old spruce and fir with protective canopies that shed snow and protect deer — will appeal to the budworm. Landowners will want to “salvage,” or cut, much of that before budworm gets it.
“Active management within DWAs over the last 40 years has created a different forest structure,” the plan reads. Translation: Maine has mostly young and regrowing trees because old ones have been cut. Landowners now cut in DWAs as they seek remaining mature stock.
“Forest fragmentation that has resulted from management of areas adjacent to DWAs may mitigate the effect of the next outbreak.” Translation: Because so many older trees have been cut near DWAs, there is nothing for budworm to eat.
“Decreases in DWAs are likely to lead to higher winter mortality in deer and potential abandonment of DWAs by deer.” Translation: As they cut into the last DWAs, where will deer go to survive the winter?
“Positive Benefits” include an “increase in early successional habitats in proximity of DWAs” Translation: As if we needed more young trees — i.e. early successional. Good for owners. They are chipping young trees before they get old anyway.
The plan recommends “adaptive harvesting to reduce high-risk [spruce budworm] areas should avoid DWAs where possible.” Translation: Please, please, could you voluntarily not harvest any more deer yards?
Another recommendation: “Focus salvage operations within other DWAs only on high-risk species (i.e., balsam fir, white spruce) showing significant signs of damage.” Translation: Could you please, please voluntarily only take balsam and spruce from yards when trees start to show damage?
“Explore funding or other options for insecticide spraying to protect high-risk DWAs,” the plan document reads. Translation: Like last time, use poison to kill the bugs, but you won’t get them all. Spray instructions say avoid water and riparian habitat. Guess where most deer yards are located?
I hope, like last time, state biologists issue warnings not to eat organ meat from north woods game.
We deserve better. Maine’s wildlife — our heritage and an industry that drops over $1.4 billion into the state each year — deserves better.
Sandra Neily of Greenville has been an outfitter and Maine Guide. She is the author/editor of “Valuing the Nature of Maine” and “Watching out for Maine’s Wildlife,” reports prepared for the Maine Audubon Society. Her website, ValueNature, is at sandyneily.com.