Up in the remote Maine town of Allagash — you’ll get there just before the pavement ends and logging roads head into the big woods — Hilton Hafford is one of about a dozen town residents who regularly invite “neighbors” for dinner during the rugged winters.
Last year alone, Hafford will tell you, he distributed 25,000 pounds of feed for those neighbors, a herd of whitetail deer that takes up residence in town every winter. Add in the grain spread by other Allagash residents, and you’ve got the makings of a major feeding operation that began more than 30 years ago.
Similar efforts exist in other rural Maine communities, as townsfolk address what they see as a serious problem: Deer which, according to localized reports, would starve without human intervention.
Those actions fly in the face of the stated official position of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, which advises Mainers to avoid feeding deer supplemental grains for a number of reasons.
But as snow drifts grow and cold weather continues, across the state, people like Hafford spend a portion of each day with buckets in hand, spreading food for the deer that surround them.
And the word “surround” isn’t an overstatement: In places like Allagash, the gathering of deer is impressive, or depressing, depending on your point of view.
“Whatever deer are up here in the north region, they’re all here in Allagash,” Hafford explains. “It’s hard to calculate how many. There could be 400, 500, 600 deer here.”
Hafford says that although he has grown accustomed to seeing the deer that flock to the town each winter, he didn’t grow up seeing anything like it.
“We never used to see any deer in town here,” he said. “The deer were all in the deer yards. But now there’s not any deer yards.”
Deer yards are a mosaic of wintering habitat with an evergreen canopy component that keeps the snow from getting too deep on the ground, with nearby food sources that provide woody browse. Deer utilize those yards effectively by building intricate trail systems through the deepening snow that allows them to move around (and avoid predators) without expending too much energy.
Hafford maintains that cutting practices in the Maine woods, along with replanting and herbicide regimens that have been followed, have virtually eliminated high-quality wintering habitat. Thus, the influx of deer each year.
“If we didn’t feed the deer, we wouldn’t have any deer here,” Hafford said. “There isn’t anyone here who has ever fed deer who ever lured those deer in to eat. [The deer] came here because they were hungry, and people started feeding them. They came here because there was no place else.”
Darlene Kelly Dumond said her father, Tylor Kelly, was among the first to help the deer feeding operation in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Tylor Kelly helped build boxes for the feed, which was delivered in trucks from Canada and blown into the feed boxes.
“The Canadian trucks came because the workers at the Fraser mill [in Madawaska] saw that there was a need for the deer to be fed,” she said.
Bob Cordes now serves as special projects coordinator for the DIF&W, but formerly worked as an assistant regional biologist out of the Strong office.
He said the department has worked hard to communicate with those who want to feed deer, and has worked with them to address potential problems.
“People who feed deer are wildlife-friendly, they’re very interested in the health and welfare of the animals, and when we approach them [and say] that it’s a potential public safety issue for people, and it’s also not good for deer, [they listen],” Cordes said.
One of the problems: Feeding deer near roads or highways makes the deer congregate there, and every time a deer decides to cross a road, there is potential for an accident.
“There were some sections [in western Maine] where we were losing 30 to 40 deer a year that were reported — a lot of those collisions go unreported — [and the people feeding the deer] were pretty receptive, and understood. They’re wildlife lovers and they really have the best interests of wildlife in mind when they start [feeding].”
Another potential problem: A deer may not be equipped to digest the rich grain that is provided for them. In 2015, 12 deer in New Hampshire died of enterotoxemia in an incident that was attributed to supplemental feeding.
“The microorganisms in their gut change over [from season to season] to be able to digest woody browse,” Cordes said. “And then, to get that influx of carbohydrates [from grain that is left for them] is not good on the system. They can’t handle it.”
Another potential issue: Providing an incentive — food — for deer to overpopulate an area can result in an area being over-browsed by hungry deer, leaving no natural food. In those cases, if insufficient quantities of food is provided by humans, the deer will also suffer.
But can winter feeding be the best possible scenario in some cases?
“It’s debatable, for sure,” Cordes said. “I think there are more negative consequences than positive consequences. And some of the unintended consequences are that most of the deer that get [the food] are the healthy, dominant does. They’ll be the ones that will be the first to eat, eat the longest, and they’re the ones who need it the least.”
Up in Allagash, it bothers Hafford when he looks out his window and sees hungry deer. But he says without adequate winter habitat, he and his fellow deer-feeders have little choice.
“You shouldn’t look out your window and see a deer. They shouldn’t be in your dooryard,” Hafford said. “They should be in the woods.”
But they aren’t. And if the deer are in town, they’re going to be fed. That’s the way it’s been for more than 30 years, and that’s the way it is today.
“[People who feed the deer] do it because, to them, it is the right thing to do,” Dumond said. “The deer are coming here. And they’re hungry.”