Outdoors in Maine: Deer-yard debacle upsetting, shocking

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For sportsmen concerned about our disappearing deer numbers in northern and eastern Maine, our corresponding loss of deer wintering areas (DWAs) have long been a concern. Indeed, the history of this state’s deer wintering areas, if plotted on a line chart, is a tragic downward depiction of systematic decline. In many of our forested townships, deer yards compromise less than one percent of the woods, when, ideally, they should be 8 percent or more!

Whether we attribute this to the spruce bud-worm epidemic, greedy logging policies, or inept forestry regulation and enforcement, our whitetail deer populations are fighting a losing battle with habitat, predation by coyotes and bears, and severe weather.

The point is that deer wintering areas are on the radar and have been long before this latest deer wintering area bombshell. And it’s a beaut! It is, in fact, so outrageous as to remind us of this expression: “Just when you think that things can’t possibly get any worse, they get worse.”

In a Downeast Magazine article, George Smith, spokesman for the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), revealed that the Gardner Land Company allegedly cut over a major 350-acre deer wintering area in T2R4. Adding insult to injury, according to Smith, Gardner contracted with the state to protect the deer yard when it swapped its Kathadin Lake parcel with the state in exchange for a parcel of public lands. (This was the result of the infamous Baxter Land Swap last year).

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Here is an excerpt of the contractual language between the state and the Gardner Land Company.

Section Two, Part 6, of the legislative Resolve requires the Gardners to enter into “an agreement with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to continue management of winter habitat for white-tailed deer on those lots that is consistent with the management agreement between DIF&W and the Department of Conservation in effect on March 30, 2006 and that the agreement will remain in effect as long as the grantee owns the lots.”

The plot sickens. According to Smith, “Joe Wiley and Allan Starr, an assistant Regional Wildlife Biologist in Enfield, submitted a three-page briefing paper providing their professional assessment that the deeryards on the public lands sold to the Gardners are gone. In one of the largest deeryards, 350 acres in T2R4, the biologists wrote, all of the HMA (deer yard) except the shoreland areas were heavily harvested to GLC specifications. Stocking in shore land areas was reduced by 40 percent. Softwood canopies are now open and intercept little snow. Functionally this HMA is unlikely to support wintering deer in its present condition.”

What the devil is going on here? Although former Conservation Commissioner Patrick McGowan has long argued the fairness and public benefit of the Baxter Land Swap with the Gardner Company, some of us skeptics have remained equally passionate about the downside of this deal. Certainly this latest development hardly buttresses the McGowan view of the Baxter deal. McGowan, who has announced his gubernatorial candidacy, told me on the phone that this deer yard debacle is all news to him. He said, “If the Gardner family overcut in a deer yard of the land they acquired during the transaction, it is for professional wildlife biologists and foresters to determine. At no time during my tenure as the Commissioner of Conservation did any biologist or land manager approach me about deer-yard protection issues anywhere in the State of Maine.”

There are many unanswered questions:

1. What about Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Roland Martin? Was he aware of the illegal cutting, or did his subordinates not inform him?

2. Why did it take George Smith and Dave Trahan to bring this all to light? Were public officials squelching this public information?

3. Gardener Land Company reportedly filed the necessary paperwork before cutting the deer yard. Did somebody in Augusta let them off the hook?

4. Why would a local land owner like Gardner, a former recipient of the state Landowner of the Year award, risk this kind of negative publicity?

According to Ken Elowe, we may get some answers.

In response to my query, he said, “We are taking the allegations very seriously. Per the Governor’s request, IFW is gathering all of the facts about the allegations and the Commissioner has assigned Deputy Commissioner Paul Jacques to take the lead in this matter. This effort includes meeting with staff involved, gathering correspondence, meeting with the Gardners, and doing site reviews with our staff on the ground in the areas in question. I’ll know more when we’ve completed all of these steps.”

Whatever we learn, whether this lost deer yard was a result of bureaucratic bungling, corporate excesses, or sheer incompetence, it does not instill public confidence in future deer-yard protection. If our government can’t protect a deer wintering area in which it has a legal contract for resource protection, how in the world will it ever have any success with so-called “cooperative deer-yard agreements” with private landowners?

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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