Outdoors in Maine: Hard to sort out deer yard controversy

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Any sportsmen who is even a little concerned about Maine’s disappearing deer wintering areas needs to carefully read May’s Question of the Month in the Northwoods Sporting Journal. In it, Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Danny Martin and SAM’s executive director George Smith slug it out over earlier allegations that Fish and Wildlife leadership stood passively by while Gardner Land Company (GLC) overcut deer wintering areas that GLC was contractually obligated to protect. GLC, as you may recall, traded some of its holdings near Millinocket Lake in exchange for parcels of land that were state-owned public lots. Purportedly, GLC, when it made the trade, inherited a deer-yard protection clause that was embraced by the former owner, the Bureau of Public Lands.

The controversy was sparked when state wildlife biologists complained that GLC was overcutting some deer yards and allegedlly breaching the land swap agreement. After the governor ordered an investigation, MDIF&W conducted an investigation, in effect of itself, and, not so surprisingly, concluded that neither it nor GLC did much of anything wrong.

What is fact and what is fiction? Frankly, this is a thorny issue and difficult to pin down. Having read most of the reports and inter-office memorandum related to this issue, one glaring inconsistency persists: Before GLC concluded its deal with the state, the professional analysis of the lands in question indicated, unequivocally, that there were some major deer wintering complexes in a number of the parcels to be traded. Yet, in Martin’s report to the governor and the state legislature, these deer yards were either marginalized or declared non-existing. Smith writes, ” He (the commissioner) minimizes the importance of the deer wintering habitat on these lands, ignores many of the requirements in the Habitat Management Agreement between DIF&W and the Gardners, and presents an analysis of the habitat on these lands that is stunningly different than two previous analyzes.”

Getting at the truth on this one would be a formidable challenge for Sherlock Holmes. Joe Wiley, one of the state wildlife biologists whose earlier concerns about GLC’s cutting practices got this whole controversy rolling, told me that he regrettably had “made a mistake” in his earlier assessment of GLC’s cut. “Is anyone trying to muzzle you, Joe,” I asked. “No way,” he said.

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If this is not a whitewash or a butt-covering exercise, and is simply the result of poor communication or ineptitude, the thinking evident in Martin’s report to the governor is still troubling nonetheless. He and his staff write,”Since there was no current deer use, Gardner’s harvests have had no effect on deer use in the areas and did not diminish any current or future value for deer,” he concludes.

Think about that. His logic seems to be that, if there are no deer presently using an historic deer wintering area, then there is no reason to protect it! In other words, let’s give up. This is no way to plan for the restoration of Maine’s dwindling North Woods deer numbers. And what message does this send to other major timberland owners who have verbal cooperative agreements with MDIF&W to protect deer wintering areas?

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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