Deer management study raises eyebrows, plenty of questions

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The Fish and Wildlife Department recently released its official deer harvest report. Deer hunters in Maine harvested 22,490 deer last fall. This number is a far cry from the deer harvests in the past. It’s a slight improvement, however, and the Fish and Wildlife Department, understandably, made the best of a bad situation with a positive headline: “Deer Harvest Second Highest in the Past Six Years.”

Facts don’t lie, though. Further down in the press release the lingering seriousness of Maine’s deer population numbers is apparent. “For 2015, the Department is recommending a total of 28,700 Anydeer permits. This is a decrease of 23 percent from 2014. In 2013, there was a 20 percent cutback in Anydeer permits.

Consecutive harsh winters have taken its toll on Maine’s deer, of that there is no doubt. Even wildlife managers can’t control the weather. Other deer population variables can be managed, however: predation and habitat, to name two. Strides have been made by sportsmen and state-sanctioned predator control personnel to reduce coyote numbers. Predation by bears is another matter.

Habitat seems to be the elusive but critical variable that must be the focus if we are ever to see deer numbers return. For years, the Land Use Regulation Commission zoned some deer wintering areas against commercial foresting. Along the way, the Fish and Wildlife Department tried the “carrot approach” and sought to forge cooperative deer yard protection agreements with wildland owners.

As an interested observer, it has frankly been difficult to get a fix from public officials on just how effective these cooperative agreements have been. A recent in depth study by the University of Maine wildlife ecology department is not that encouraging about how we manage deer and deer wintering areas.

The study is titled “Effectiveness of State Regulations to Protect Deer Wintering Habitats in Maine: Did the Designation of LURC-zoned Deeryards Achieve Desired Objectives during the Period 1975-2007?”

UMO professor Dan Harrison was the principal investigator. Boiled down, the study asserts that more than 30 years of zoning of deer yards has not worked. It further maintains, surprisingly, that the expansion of zoned deer yards will be a financial burden on timberland owners with negligible return in deer yard protection or deer survival numbers.

The study appears to be saying as well that the state’s deer management objectives and goals have been out of step with the realities of commercially managed forestlands.

Looking to the future, the study states that: “Given that zoning of a small part of the landscape was ineffective for meeting population-level habitat objectives for deer in Maine, other collaborative landscape conservation approaches will likely be needed to couple forestry and wildlife habitat objectives on managed forests in the region.

As you might guess, this report — which has not had much media scrutiny that I know of — raises as many questions as it answers. When I asked wildlife managers in Augusta to react to this somewhat controversial study, I was told that other priorities have been in play, and so far there has not been the staff or the time to assess the study, or weigh its findings against contemporary deer management goals.

Stay tuned!

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. 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, WQVM-FM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected] . He has two books “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook” and his latest, “Backtrack.” Online information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications.com.

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