By George Smith
The new deer management plan includes an interesting history of deer in Maine. “In the 19th century, extirpation of wolves and cougars from Maine allowed deer to further expand and increase in number essentially unencumbered by predation. Still, despite their increased presence, deer population status continued to fluctuate with winter severity and large-scale events (spruce budworm outbreaks, fires) that caused significant habitat changes.
Over the years, the legislature gradually increased the number and types of hunting restrictions by imposing bag limits (first 1873), creating hunting zones with differing seasons (first in 1893), and establishing hunting license requirements (first in 1906 for nonresidents).
Further restrictions included bans on the sale of venison or use of venison to provision logging camps, as well as the outlawing of deer hunting at night or with dogs. The plan includes an interesting history of all the laws and regulations that were enacted to govern deer hunting over the years.
The plan notes that the “department entered into cooperative agreements with a number of industrial timberland owners to protect deer wintering areas.” However, those agreements were not legally binding and too many of those wintering areas were cut, leading to a sharp decline in the deer herd throughout the northern half of the state. Unfortunately the department still believes that “cooperative agreements continue to be a key tool for DWA management on industrial timberland.”
Between the mid-1950s and early 1960s the department estimated Maine’s deer population to be 250,000, and 35,000 to 40,000 deer were harvested annually.
During the 1960s, the state reached its lowest levels of deer abundance. Harsh winters, wintering habitat loss, coyote colonization, and increasing hunting pressure resulted in the population declining to approximately 141,000. Following this die off and continuing through the late 1980s, Maine’s deer population grew slowly. Despite a slow rebound in the deer population, demand for the resource continued to grow. This precipitated a series of new management strategies and laws that attempted to expedite the growth of our deer population.
Interestingly, during the 80s and 90s, DIFW recognized that, “to meet the public’s population goals for deer, the amount of winter habitat would need to be increased to approximately 8% to 10% of Maine’s landscape.” During that same time, the department reports that Maine’s deer herd grew to an estimated all-time high of 331,000, but much of the growth was in the southern half of the state.
They do recognize that the deer populations in western, northern, and eastern regions of the state remain chronically below both short-term and long-term management objectives, and that the limited availability of deer wintering areas continues to prevent the state from growing its deer herd in two thirds of its wildlife management districts.
The plan reports on the department’s effort to decrease the density of deer to less than 20 per square mile in some areas to reduce adult tics and Lyme disease, but notes that this effort has been unsuccessful.
The plan reports that 91% of hunters hunted deer the past five years and 82% were very satisfied or somewhat satisfied with their deer hunting experiences. The highest level of dissatisfaction was among those who most often hunt in northern or Downeast Maine, with 21% of those hunters reporting that they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with the deer hunting experiences. Dissatisfaction was primarily related to lack of success with too few deer.
My next column on the big-game management plans will focus on management issues and threats for deer.