Deer hunting numbers are numbing

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The deer harvest numbers for the 2009 Maine deer season have been reported in a press release from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDF&W). As most sportsmen expected, the 2009 deer kill is way down. In fact, deer hunters last fall tagged even fewer deer than biologists predicted! Hunters tagged 14 percent fewer deer than they did in 2008, and that was not a good year! The preliminary figure for last fall’s hunt is 18,405. This figure is 6 percent below the projected harvest.

From the DIF&W press release:

“To put this into perspective, we must consider that the 2008 and 2009 winters represent the most severe back-to-back winters since 1971-72,” according to IF&W Deer Biologist Lee Kantar.

Long winters with deep snows have a tremendous impact on the overwinter survival of deer. Both expected regional declines in deer abundance and adverse hunting conditions — two weeks of poor hunting conditions during the firearms season — played a role in the fall 2009 harvest decline. Decreases in the deer harvest from 2008 also were expected given the 16 percent decrease in any-deer permits for Maine’s hunters (reducing overall success rates). The reductions in any-deer permits for 2009 were necessary to allow the deer herd to begin to recover.

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Relative to adjacent provincial and state jurisdictions, the decline in Maine’s deer harvest was less in comparison to our Canadian neighbors in Quebec and New Brunswick whose deer harvests declined greater than 30 percent during the same time period, but was greater than the decline in New Hampshire’s deer harvest (decrease of approximately five percent).

Kantar has good reason to blame a low deer harvest on two tough winters. Deep snow and prolonged cold took its toll. Missing from IF&W’s press release, however, is what you might call historical context, and this glaring statistic: The 2009 Maine deer harvest, while it may be 14 percent below last year’s harvest, is, in fact, 34 percent below Maine’s 20-year average deer harvest! (Over a 20-year period, Maine’s average deer harvest has been 28,700).

Neither does the MDIF&W press release give any prominence to the impact that coyote and bear predation is having upon fawn survival. Maine’s deer herds in Northern and Eastern Maine were in a crisis mode long before our two severe, back-to-back winters. Other factors contributing to the plummeting deer harvest numbers are fewer licensed hunters, and fewer truly dedicated hunters among the license holders.

Then, or course, is the biggest culprit of all — disappearing deer wintering areas. What is also missing from our statistical exercise with deer harvest numbers is the stark geographical dispersal of Maine’s deer populations. Relatively good deer numbers in mid-coastal and southern Maine produce misleading statistics. These numbers keep even the bad averages up and can mask this harsh reality: The whitetail deer in our North Woods has just about become extinct. This loss will leave its imprint on the North Woods and Maine’s rural economy for years to come.It all comes through in this letter from Joe Moffatt, a once-loyal, non-resident North Woods deer hunter who has been hunting Maine for 30 years.

Now with the lack of wintering areas, the increase in the coyote population and the uncontrollable whim of Mother Nature, the deer have all but disappeared.

My last year in Maine, 2008, I saw little to no deer sign and only one deer in a full two weeks of hunting; Mother Nature had dealt a cruel blow to the herd during the winter of 2007 – 2008.

With the multitude of land owners looking for a return on their money, the efficiency of modern cutting techniques creating an abundance of new growth and feed; the irony of not having a suitable winter habitat for the deer herd is the cruelest blow of all.

Where once there were hundreds of deer being harvested every year, this past season saw fewer than one hundred deer harvested from a 3,000,000 acre area. Once there was a tent or trailer in every pit along the Golden Road now there are none. Without a state purchase of the land or a consolidation of landowners who are willing to work with fish and game an era has come to an end in the North Maine Woods.

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal and has written his first book, A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WCME-FM 96.7) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is paul@sportingjournal.com.

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