The deer numbers



“Hey, Paul, you’ve got to be kidding me! It’s March and you guys still don’t have the tally on last fall’s deer kill?” asked the New England outdoor editor of a national sporting magazine. That scolding took place more than 20 years ago, when I was press officer for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

During my three year-tenure with IF&W, it never changed. Blame was placed on the deer tagging stations.

Guess what? It’s no better today. In fact, it is worse — much worse. As of the first of June, nobody in officialdom, including the state deer biologist Nathan Bieber, can tell you how many deer were taken in last fall’s hunt. Don Dudley, chairman of the IF&W Advisory Council, said that it is frustrating for policymakers who keep asking for the deer harvest summary and are told that the foot draggers in the tagging stations are the culprits. How do the other northern New England states manage timely deer harvest numbers?

Dudley says he thinks the kill will be about the same as it was in 2016, so we may be talking of a 2017 harvest in the neighborhood of 23,000 deer.

It all kind of makes you wonder how, with an incomplete database, the department can make informed deer management decisions for next fall’s hunt. Just before the Memorial Day weekend, the department released its plan to issue 84,745 doe permits for next fall. According to John Holyoke in the Bangor Daily News, that’s 8,000 higher than ever allotted in Maine! Following Maine’s deer population low point in 2009, the issuance of any-deer permits has been on a steady increase.

The generous doe permit quota, though, can be very misleading. Mild to moderate winters in southern and central Maine have resulted in above-average deer survival. That’s not the case, however, in northern Maine’s big woods, where tough winters have taken a toll of deer numbers. As a result, in the northern Maine wildlife management districts there will continue to be a bucks-only harvest.

Along with the recovering deer populations in southern and central Maine that permit a higher harvest quota of does, there is another factor: some unwanted and very high doe/buck ratios have also allowed deer managers to issue more doe permits as well.

Over the past 20 years, Maine’s deer population has been on a roller-coaster ride. In 1999, our statewide deer population was pegged at a jaw-dropping 331,000. Ten years later, in 2009, the figure took a nosedive to just 140,000 critters. Then, in 2015, the deer herd shot back up to an estimated 248,000.

At the risk of sounding disrespectful to the wildlife management profession, it all makes you wonder just who is in control of Maine’s deer numbers, the wildlife scientists or Mother Nature.

There is no doubt in my mind that coyote control measures, both by the department and recreational coyote hunters, have helped the survival rate of our deer. Because bear kill young deer, just like coyotes, our burgeoning bear population should be a source of concern for deer managers as they implement their recently released 10-year game management plan.

Meantime, if you are looking for those deer harvest figures from last fall, don’t hold your breath.

V. Paul Reynolds

Columnist at Ellsworth American
The author is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. His email address is [email protected]

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