Maine’s deer habitat goals are unrealistic and unattainable report forestry experts

A new study by several forestry experts at the University of Maine is depressing for all who are counting on more deer in the northern forest.

“State-level management goals for white-tailed deer may need to be readjusted to reflect the profound habitat changes that have occurred on commercially managed forestlands in the Northern Forest Region from 1975-2007,” is just one of several discouraging recommendations and findings in this report.

Titled the “Effectiveness of State Regulations to Protect Deer Wintering Habitats in Maine,” the study focused on whether or not the designation of LURC-zoned deeryards achieved desired objectives during the period 1975-2007.

Principal investigator Daniel Harrison, a widely respected longtime professor and forestry expert at UMO’s Wildlife Ecology Department, was assisted by several co-investigators in the School of Forest Resources. The study was funded by the Maine Cooperative Forestry Research Unit at the University of Maine.

Stunning Findings

I was, frankly, stunned by some of the findings, including these.

“Fifty percent of the mature forest area (soft, mixed, and hardwood) was harvested during 1975-2007 in areas within a 1.25 mile buffer outside of protected Deer Wintering Areas (DWAs).

“Nearly all DWAs had harvesting activity within their boundaries; 91% had at least 1 heavy harvest area; 23% of the mature forest area within DWAs was harvested in this period.

“Remnant patches of wintering area are extensively fragmented in Maine and may help explain why deer have declined in areas with severe winters within the Northern Forest region.

“The broad-scale conversion of mature forest to regenerating forest in areas surrounding zoned DWAs… may be indicative of declines in extent of deer wintering habitat throughout the Northern Forest region.”

When I read that, I thought: so it’s not all about predation by bears and coyotes! Perhaps the focus of the Maine Game Plan for Deer needs to be broadened from its almost sole focus on killing coyotes.

Significant decline in habitat

The report presents interesting background information, including these facts.

“190,000 acres within 981 deer wintering areas were zoned for white-tailed deer within organized townships of Maine.”

“Despite those efforts, the state wildlife management agency estimates that quality wintering habitat in these areas has declined from 10% to 5% of the landscape.”

“Sportsmen’s organizations and state agencies have stated goals of increasing the extent of protected deer wintering areas in northern and western Maine to 8-10% of land base by 2030 (or sooner).”

Time to be realistic

This report is very significant, the first serious attempt to measure the effectiveness of zoned deer yards to protect both habitat and deer. And nothing in the report is encouraging.

So, you might be saying, we gave up trying to zone deer yards more than a decade ago. And since that time, Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and forest landowners have worked cooperatively to protect deer habitat.

Well, let’s be realistic here. This study not only reports on the ineffectiveness of the state’s effort to protect deer wintering areas through zoning, it also indicates any other protective strategy is probably doomed, due to its cost and its ineffectiveness. Read these findings and weep.

Could take decades – at huge cost

“Our experience in Maine suggest that meeting objectives to increase protection to 8-10 percent of the land base in DWAs would be costly and would require zoning a large proportion of the remnant small mature softwood patches, and those may be of limited use for wintering deer.

“Creative landscape-scale approaches will be required to increase the future extent, connectivity and functional quality of deer wintering habitat in the Northern Forest region, and it may take decades to achieve measureable success.

“New zoning would affect new areas with an estimated $457 million in current timber value… and cost landowners an estimated $160 million in reduced land value.”

Not all about deer

If you care naught about deer, the report still has something of interest for you in this conclusion.

“We concluded that existing deer wintering areas were relatively ineffective in conserving a broader array of forest vertebrate biodiversity, suggesting that alterations in deer management objectives, as well as new approaches to forest landscape and biodiversity conservation are needed in the Northern Forest region.”

Response needed

These devastating findings question the state’s past efforts to protect deer wintering areas as well as the current plan to expand protection of that critical habitat. The report demands a thoughtful response from the state’s outdoor leaders, DIF&W staff, and legislators on the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee.

You can read the report  here – including interesting charts and graphs.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.