Outdoors in Maine: Struggling for clarity from new deer plans

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Every 15 years the Maine fish and wildlife department commits itself to a big game management plan. The idea, as with any plan, is to establish an organized approach toward achieving goals and objectives. The 15-year plan that existed before the new 15-year plan, which was adopted this spring, was clear and straightforward with respect to management objectives for whitetail deer.

Acknowledging the problem of depleting deer wintering areas, the earlier plan set a goal that sought to protect 9 percent of Maine’s forestland as deer wintering areas (DWAs). Additionally, that plan also established a definitive goal for a statewide deer population: 384,000 deer. If wildlife managers had met that 15-year goal, we would today be looking at an average deer population of 13 deer per square mile.

The state deer stewards never came close to these goals.

Ryan Robicheau, the wildlife director for Maine, said, “In regards to DWA’s we have 173,740 acres of PF-Ws and 178,964 under cooperative agreement — between the two, that would equal 2 percent of all forestland in the state, and approximately 3.4 percent of all lands in LUPC jurisdiction.”

The previous paragraph is important and merits an underscore: today, deer wintering areas “equal 2 percent of all forestland in the state.” That is a far cry from the 9 percent recommended by former deer biologist and deer research leader Gerry Lavigne in the previous 15-year plan.

As for the earlier game management plan’s ambitious statewide deer population objective of 384,000 deer, Maine’s actual deer numbers are reportedly less than half that figure. Equally sobering is this: The newly adopted big game management plan sets a target population goal of just 210,000 animals by 2033. This is a 54 percent reduction in the state’s deer density objective incorporated in the previous 15-year big game management plan.

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In my reading of the new plan’s deer objectives, and from my efforts to “pin down” the Augusta policymakers, it becomes evident that times are a changin’ when it comes to game management plans. Specifics have been abandoned and replaced with vague generalities and elusive concepts. A cynic could construe this approach as a bureaucratically cautious, laid back “going with the flow” mode, as opposed to an energetic attempt to set the bar higher in Maine deer management.

When it comes to discussions of deer densities (deer per square mile), the Department just does not want to go there. In response to my repeated questions about how the new plan addresses deer population numbers, Ryan Robicheau had this to say: “These management strategies aren’t tied to specific densities, but rather a more comprehensive approach factoring in health of the deer, ensuring that they don’t negatively impact habitat and are below social carrying capacity (in southern and coastal Maine).”

Bob Cordes, one of Robicheau’s assistants said this: “The goals for deer population management outlined in the updated 2017 Big Game plan are to maintain a healthy and sustainable deer population, rather than limiting a particular WMD to a hard target density objective — like in the past couple of plans. This allows for greater flexibility in management actions to adapt to changing landscapes, climate fluctuations, social issues, etc.”

Woven into the new game management plan, there are a number of soft, public relations-oriented goals such as acquiring 75 percent of public approval of deer management policies by 2022 and increasing hunter satisfaction to 85 percent by 2022.

Yes, the new big game management plan is disappointingly void of deer population specifics, a corresponding focus on deer wintering areas and deer management objectives that will, 15 years from now, hold wildlife biologists and Augusta policymakers accountable for reaching those objectives.

After all, in the end isn’t it the number of deer that we have or don’t have that is at the core of professional whitetail management?

The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine guide and host of a weekly radio program, “Maine Outdoors,” heard at 7 p.m. Sundays on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network. He has authored three books; online purchase information is available at www.maineoutdoorpublications

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