Deer Wintering Areas – Going, Going, Gone

deer-yard-014A new plan for dealing with an expected devastating outbreak of the Spruce Budworm insect gives deer hunters little to cheer about. The state’s effort to rebuild the deer herd in the north woods appears doomed.

This is my second outdoor news report on a new risk assessment and plan, published on November 9, 2014, to deal with the expected arrival in Maine of the Spruce Budworm. The plan was created by a Spruce Budworm Task Force led by Robert Wagner, Director of the University of Maine’s Cooperative Forestry Unit, Patrick Strauch, Executive Director of the Maine Forest Products Council, and Doug Denico, Director of the Maine Forest Service.

These folks deserve great credit for getting ahead of the budworm epidemic with a solid assessment based on science and a plan that offers many alternatives to private landowners and public land managers who want to effectively address the problem before, during, and after the budworm arrives.

There are plans specific to fish and wildlife from trout to lynx to butterflies. Today, I’ll report on the damaging impact on deer and the wintering areas they depend on, and the recommendations to deal with that problem.

If you’d like to read the entire assessment and plan, you can do that here.

Game Plan for Deer

In March of 2011, Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife announced, in a press conference with Governor Paul LePage, the creation of a Maine Game Plan for Deer. It was supposed to be a comprehensive approach to rebuilding the state’s population of deer, with a focus on the north woods.

On March 6 of this year, DIF&W’s Wildlife Management Section Supervisor, Ryan Robicheau, presented the legislature with a benchmark report on deer population goals and progress made in achieving the goals of the Game Plan for Deer.

I reported on that report shortly after it was presented, noting that the department has fallen short of its goal to “obtain assurances from cooperating landowners that 100% of the acreage currently supporting wintering deer in northern, eastern, and western Maine is being cooperatively managed with the Department… by December 31, 2013.” The report didn’t tell us how far short they fell. It just notes that the effort is “in progress.” As far as I know, the agency hasn’t reached an agreement on deer wintering area management with any additional large landowners since the plan was presented in 2011.

The New Budworm Plan

The November 9 assessment and plan to address the Spruce Budworm includes the following assumptions about deer wintering areas:

• Mature spruce-fir stands are vital to Deer Wintering Areas (DWAs). DWAs with a high fir and white spruce composition are at highest risk of substantial loss of canopy cover and reduced fir recruitment. Currently, about 20% of DWAs in northern Maine are at high risk of SBW infestation and mortality (i.e., ≥50% of the forest within the DWA is dominated by high-risk species) and about 30% are at medium risk (i.e., 30-50% of the forest within the DWA is dominated by high-risk species). DWA habitat has been on the decline in the state in recent years.

• Active management within DWAs over the last 40 years has created a different forest structure. Forest fragmentation that has resulted from management of areas adjacent to DWAs may mitigate the effect of the next outbreak.

• A focus on mature balsam fir harvesting will likely limit the removal of lower-risk softwood species such as cedar, spruce, and hemlock that will need to be retained to preserve shelter value.

• There are several distinctions with DWAs in northern, eastern and western Maine. In general DWAs refer to areas that contain certain characteristics (i.e., canopy closure, height and species component) that allow deer to persist through winters in Maine. Some DWAs are regulated under Land Use Planning Commission (LUPC) protection districts as Partners for Fish and Wildlife (PFWs). Others are managed under Cooperative Agreements with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), while other areas capable of supporting DWAs are not regulated or managed cooperatively.

Potential negative effects

• Decreases in DWAs are likely to lead to higher winter mortality in deer and potential abandonment of DWAs by deer.

• Declines in spruce-fir stands will reduce the long-term availability of viable DWA area and management opportunities.

• SBW-killed stands and salvage harvesting may limit the ability of MDIFW to reach deer density goals established under the state Deer Management Plan.

Potential positive effects

• Increase in early successional habitats in proximity of DWAs with adaptive harvesting and salvage logging.


• Since DWAs managed under PFW agreements represent only 3% of the landscape in unorganized townships, adaptive harvesting to reduce high-risk SBW areas should avoid DWAs where possible. Focus salvage operations within other DWAs only on high-risk species (i.e., balsam fir, white spruce) and showing significant signs of damage.

• Maintain viable, mature softwood cover within and adjacent to active DWAs where possible.

• Strengthen forest landowner and MDIFW communications and combine expertise to address stand- and landscape-level management of DWAs during the outbreak.

• Explore funding or other options for insecticide spraying to protect high-risk DWAs.

• Incorporate SBW impacts on long-term management of DWAs into MDIFW Deer Species Assessment and management goals.


Comments on this plan can be sent to Patrick Strauch at

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,, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. Islandport Press published a book of George's favorite columns, "A Life Lived Outdoors" in 2014. In 2014, George also won a Maine Press Association award for writing the state's bet sports blog. In 2016, Down East Books published George's book, Maine Sporting Camps, and Islandport Press published George and his wife Linda's travel book, Take It From ME, about their favorite Maine inns and restaurants.