Deer dispute raises questions for state officials

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While it’s not the Teapot Dome Scandal, Maine residents deserve a prompt explanation of how state officials allowed the cutting of hundreds of acres of deer wintering yards that were apparently under state protection.

The issue was first reported by Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine Executive Director George Smith and State Sen. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, in Down East magazine. 

State officials apparently turned a blind eye to plans by Gardner Land Company to clear deer yards on land the company had acquired from the state in a trade for other lots around Katahdin Lake, which were added to Baxter State Park in 2006.

Part of the land swap required Gardner to preserve the deer yards under state supervision.

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Smith and Trahan say they have obtained a series of e-mails showing that wildlife biologists notified their bosses that the agreement was being violated. But neither the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife nor the Department of Conservation took action to stop Gardner from cutting the land.

According to Smith and Trahan, Gardner itself notified the state that it planned to do the cutting, and no action was taken.

Now, according to an assessment from two regional wildlife biologists, the deer yards on the public lands sold to Gardner are gone.

The issue is unusually contentious for two reasons:

First, many sportsmen and forestry experts opposed the Gardner land swap from the beginning, claiming Maine wasn’t getting equal value for what it was trading away.

Second, because of the near complete disappearance of deer from the northern half of the state. This has had a severe impact on the economy of the region, which is attracting fewer and fewer hunters.

While deer yards are important to maintaining a healthy deer herd, they are by no means the only reason for the shortage of white-tails in the north.

The other culprits include the growth of the coyote population, bear predation, plus a series of unusually severe winters.

Still, the disappearing deer yards are thought to be at least partly linked to the disappearing deer.

Biologists estimate that 8 percent of logging lands should be maintained as deer yards to sustain a deer population. In reality, only about 1 percent in the north are, according to V. Paul Reynolds’ recent column in the Sun Journal.

While some timbering operations like Irving Woodlands are protecting 9 percent of their land, a voluntary program promoted by the state has failed to convince enough other landowners to do the same.

According to SAM’s Smith, Maine now sells about 170,000 deer permits per year, which is down by about 50,000 from the early 1980s. That has resulted in a direct loss of permit revenue to support DIF&W operations.

We applaud Gov. John Baldacci’s decision to forward the Gardner case to the Attorney General’s Office.

But, even if this case does not result in criminal or civil charges, Mainers deserve a complete report on the alleged regulatory failures that resulted in this debacle.

editorialboard@sunjournal.com

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