Goals for Maine’s deer and deer hunters may be unrealistic

NOTE: I’ve posted a question for you in the Sportsmen Say Survey section of my website, www.georgesmithmaine.com, on the issue of deer yard protection. The question is: Is it fair to expect private landowners to protect deer wintering areas – and give up the value of the timber in those areas – without compensation? Your responses will be shared with landowners, DIF&W, legislators, and the news media. Thanks!

Deer Series

We’ve lost 100,000 deer hunters and now harvest about half of the deer we did forty years ago. Sportsmen cast a wide net of blame for this, from coyotes and bears to private landowners. Perhaps our expectations have always been unrealistic.

This column is the first in a series on deer. When the series is completed, I hope we all have a more realistic understanding of what we can achieve – because I was born a Maine deer hunter and deer hunting remains my favorite outdoor activity. I even purchased two woodlots to assure that I would always have a place to hunt.

And that’s one thing this series will examine: the loss of places to hunt. We will take a serious look at predation of deer by coyotes and bears and the many studies, plans, and programs launched over the years to address that problem. Deer habitat – especially the protection and management of winter yards – will of course be a hot topic. So let’s start there.

If deer had value for private landowners, we’d have all the deer we desire. Unfortunately, deer not only have no value for landowners, deer are a liability. And the tension between the demands of sportsmen and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for protection of deer yards and the landowners on whose property those deer yards exist has always been a problem.

Game Plan for Deer

In 2011, Governor Paul LePage presented Maine’s Game Plan for deer, focused on increasing the deer herd in northern, eastern, and western Maine. To the department’s credit, the plan tackles the issues of expectations and tensions.

The plan, in a section titled “Setting Realistic Expectations,” notes that “it can be argued quite reasonably that… society will bear no responsibility or cost itself to maintain the current (deer) population… It is this reality that has led to the dramatic decline in… deer numbers. This is the root cause of the sporting public’s dissatisfaction and frustration with the … deer population decline.”

“There is a tension that develops when society asks a private landowner to manage his or her forest lands for the benefit of a publicly-owned resource – deer,” noted the plan which also reported the failure of cooperative deer yard management agreements from the mid-1950s through 1973. That’s when they moved to zoning.

“Deer wintering area zoning inflamed the tension between landowners and the State,” noted the plan. “This tension – the regulation of important habitat on private property – expressed itself as anger, frustration, and mistrust by both landowners and the Department, resulting in two suits before the Maine Supreme Court, tense P-FW zoning hearings before the LURC Commissioners, and several landowner-State DWA study committees.

“After 25 years, we only managed to zone at most 200,000 acres of deer wintering area – an amount far too little to adequately manage deer populations in the spruce-fir forest,” concluded the plan.

Zoning Failed

On January 6, I posted a column on a new study by several forestry experts at the University of Maine that cataloged the failures of LURC’s deer yard zoning. The study included this discouraging finding: “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.”

So, as one forester for a major landowner recently said, deer yard zoning is “ancient history.” DIF&W currently focuses on cooperative management agreements between the agency and large private landowners. How’s that working? We’ll tell you in the next column. But be forewarned, your expectations may still be unrealistic.

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.