The equation is pretty simple, deer biologists will tell you: If the winter is mild, more deer — especially young, vulnerable deer — survive.
And in Maine, when that happens, hunters are often the beneficiaries, receiving more any-deer permits from the state. With one of those permits in hand, a hunter is allowed to target a doe or fawn during hunting season. Without it, that hunter has to target deer sporting antlers, which are typically bucks.
And this year, the state’s hunters will likely be smiling. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has put 66,050 of the coveted permits up for grabs via a lottery. That’s a drastic increase over the 2016 permit allocation of 45,755. Just two years ago, in 2015, the state allotted just 28,770 permits — 44 percent of this year’s total.
And as is usually the case, winter weather is the catalyst for that increase.
“The biggest thing with deer has been, and will likely continue to be, winter severity, and the impact that has, especially on younger deer,” said Lee Kantar, the DIF&W’s former deer biologist. “We’ve had a series of very mild winters, and that really builds up those deer numbers rather quickly.”
The state’s lead deer biologist, Kyle Ravana, left his job to pursue other opportunities in May, but his departure did not lead to any complications in determining this year’s any-deer permit allocations, according to Kantar. Ravana had held that position since 2013.
Kantar is now the state’s moose biologist, but was included in the loop on any-deer permits after Ravana left, and therefore was able to explain the department’s reasoning in the absence of a full-time deer biologist..
“This last winter, 2016-17, was [the latest in a string of mild winters],” Kantar said. “It was in the bottom as one of the most mild winters.”
This year, any-deer permits will be allotted in 22 of the state’s Wildlife Management Districts, including districts 2, 3 and 6, which are all north of Houlton, where the deer herd has particularly struggled over the past 10 years.
Kantar explained that when biologists establish each district’s any-deer permits for a given year, they also have to establish an “expansion factor” in order to reach population goals.
“Say that we want to remove 100 does from one management district [to reach population goals]. We know that we’re not going to have 100 any-deer permits and take 100 does,” Kantar said. “In fact, based on years and years of experience on this, we know we have to build in an expansion factor [to account for] success rate, and the fact that many of those hunters who are successful may choose to take a buck and not take a doe on that permit.”
A year ago, about 4,000 does were taken by hunters, while more than 45,000 any-deer permits were allotted, Kantar explained. So this year, with about 66,000 any-deer permits being issued, it’s reasonable to expect that 6,000 does will be harvested, Kantar said.
“The increase looks large, the number of any-deer permits looks large, but it all translates back to an actual number that’s not [excessive],” Kantar said.
And he said the increased level of any-deer permits is reason for hunters to be enthusiastic.
“It’s all a good thing, really. Because in the general scheme of things, we’re saying, based on all of this available information on deer, the survival project on deer that’s going on for a few years, that we can afford, so to speak, to increase our doe harvest because there are enough deer out there,” Kantar said.
Kantar said that as the DIF&W continues to work on its next generation of long-range management plans, a subtle shift is emerging. In past years, it was common for biologists to issue population estimates for various big game animals. When asked for a statewide estimate on deer, Kantar said biologists are focusing more on the health of the population than sheer numbers.
“We’re not abandoning the thought of ‘How many critters are there out there?’ but the means for us doing that, we do as part of monitoring health, as well,” Kantar said.
And as the management planning goes on, Kantar said one hot-button issue will certainly be considered: Lyme disease, which can be carried by deer.
He said that focus is a continuation of the state’s effort from the last long-term management plan.
“In the 2000 to 2016 management system for deer, it was recognized in southern and south-central Maine that Lyme disease was a serious concern to public health, and when we looked at people in the state of Maine, putting some sort of limitations to the number of deer down there has a value to people,” said Kantar, who said he expected that concern about the disease to be reflected in the pending management plan as well.