Whenever wildlife biologists and sportsmen gather to discuss the causes of Maine’s declining deer numbers, there is almost always an agreement on one thing. When it comes to chief causes in the whitetail decline in Maine, habitat trumps both predation and severe winters.

Sure, coyotes and bears raise havoc with fawn survival, and deep snows and prolonged cold all take a toll of adult deer, but without prime deer habitat this state can not long sustain a robust deer herd, regardless of these other factors.

What is prime deer habitat? It is a combination of things. Old mature, monolithic forests don’t cut it when it comes to supporting deer. Cut-over forests that support new growth provide a forage base for deer. Biologists call this “successional growth.”  Big-woods deer also need deer wintering areas that comprise cedar and other softwoods with big canopies to protect deer from subzero temperatures and the cruel winds of winter.

As former state deer biologist Gerry Lavigne once pointed out, deer never did do very well in the North Woods. In Maine’s early days, when caribou roamed the North Woods, deer were really a coastal critter. Deer are creatures of “edges.”

They tend to thrive where there are fields, meadows and hedge rows and large riparian zones with streams, marshes and lowlands.

 Take Maryland, for example. Maryland is overun with wily whitetails, so many, in fact, that the annual bag limit is somewhere around a dozen deer!

What does Maryland have that Maine doesn’t? Much milder winters, yes. But there is a far more significant reason that can be summed up in three words: habitat, habitat, habitat. Maryland is an agricultural state that raises lots of soybeans and corn. It’s expansive agricultural lands, coupled with an early greenup and prolonged growing season, add up to prime deer habitat.

In Maine, without a doubt, our declining deer numbers are statistically connected to our disappearing farms and decline of agriculture in general. Recently, during a talk to the Rockland Kiwanians about saving rural Maine, George Smith, the former director of the Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine (SAM), cited an astonishing trend. Smith’s words:

“When Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb started dairy farming, Maine had 2200 dairy farms. In 1991, I wrote my first newspaper column lamenting the loss of Maine’s dairy farms. Six hundred farmers were still in the dairy business at that time.

“In 2002, I wrote a sorrowful plea to save the 412 dairy farms still clinging tenuously to their way of life. Listening a month ago to legislators struggling with complex bills designed to help dairy farmers, I leaned forward and asked former Senator and dairyman John Nutting how many dairy farmers we still have. His answer: 305. When the final moo comes from the state’s last cow, will anyone hear it?”

Over the years a number of legislative attempts have been made to save Maine’s vanishing dairy farms. But is is almost impossible to legislate away the inevitability of social change.

This spring the Maine State Legislature passed legislation that is designed to rebuild the Maine deer herd. One of the new laws funds a new deer management program by allocating $2 from each $5 deer tagging to this fund. It is hoped that this money will be used to underwrite the cost of conservation easements to protect existing deer wintering yards.  Another new law, which the governor has also signed, allocates $100,000 to fund Fish and Wildlife’s predator control program. This money will be used to pay trappers and hunters to cull coyotes from this state’s robust coyote populations. Although there does not seem to be much support from either Maine wildlife biologists or sportsman organizations for placing bounties on coyotes, Nova Scotia, which has experienced at least two coyote attacks on humans, does have a coyote bounty program, as does New Brunswick and the state of Utah.

Whatever the best recovery strategy may be for Maine’s waning deer herd, one thing is certain. The hour is late. There has been far too much talk and not nearly enough action. Last year, Fish and Wildlife had a $50,000 budget for predator control and spent very little of it. With nearly $150,000 in its predator control program for this year, sportsmen need to ask: What is the plan? How is this money going to be spent?

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] and his new book is “A Maine Deer Hunter’s Logbook.”

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