Deer Plans Pile Up While Deer Population Goes Down

Coming up in George’s Outdoor News this week:

Today, a look back at many of the deer plans and recommendations from task forces and working groups.

Tomorrow (February 24), a report from the legislature where the IFW Committee hosts public hearings on four interesting bills: one on the impact of winter ticks on moose, another to allow hunting small game with a slingshot, one to allow hunters to wear pink instead of orange, and a fourth to modify fishing rules for Webster Stream.

Wednesday (February 25), a report from the legislature where 3 different committees will hear important bills on mining, new restrictions on signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and a transfer of public lands to the forestry division of the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry. I’ll touch down at all three hearings and give you a report.

Friday (February 27), I’ll report on the last effort at SAM and the legislature to address deer problems and issues, with a list of recommendations that we called the Trahan/Smith Plan.

Deer Plans Pile Up While Deer Population Goes Down

DSCN8230Maine’s had a lot of deer plans over the last 30 years. I’ve got a pile of them, starting in 1996 when I organized the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s Deer Task Force to gather information from the group’s members so that we could take an active role in the planning process that the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would begin in 1998 to create a new deer management plan.

In every plan, lack of wintering habitat was cited as the most important issue.

SAM’s 1996 task force noted, “During the past 25 years the amount and quality of wintering habitat in Maine has declined markedly, especially in northern and eastern Maine,” and recognized that “the very successful any-deer permit system which began in 1983 has been in large part responsible for an 88% increase in deer abundance from 160,000 deer in 1982 to over 300,000 in 1997.” The Task Force also noted the decline in hunters and made recommendations to address that problem.

DSCN8229Specific recommendations included “increase deer abundance and control buck mortality rates in northern zones to support the harvest of trophy deer at, at least, 20% of total buck kill” with trophy deer described as age 4 ½ or older.

SAM’s work on deer actually began in the early 1980s with its first Deer Task Force chaired by Carroll York of the Forks. That effort led to support for and enactment of a bucks-only hunting season and later, to the creation of the any-deer permit system. SAM’s Deer Task Forces in the 80s and 90s worked closely with DIF&W’s deer biologist Gerry Lavigne.

In 1995 Lavigne issued a report to the legislature, at the request of Representative Howard Chick, about eastern coyotes and their impact on white-tailed deer. At the time, it was a sensation. The 23-page report recommended focusing on removal of coyotes in winter, while recognizing “that the real obstacle to attaining a higher deer population in more than half of the state is the declining quality and quantity of wintering habitat for deer.” Gerry called on his agency to “find an efficient way to protect and enhance a minimum of 1.5 million acres of wintering habitat, statewide.”

2006 Task Force

Another SAM Deer Task Force issued more recommendations in 2006 on issues ranging from landowner relations to increases in antlerless deer permits for private landowners who allow hunting on their property. Lavigne had retired by that time and joined SAM to participate as a volunteer on the Deer Task Force, funded by a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund. Senator David Trahan, now SAM’s Executive Director, was a member of that Task Force as was Don Kleiner, now the lobbyist for The Maine Guides Association, along with Paul Jacques, DIF&W’s Deputy Commissioner, Harry Vanderweide, and other outdoor leaders. I served as the chair while Gerry provided much of the leadership.

While some of this Task Force’s recommendations were adopted, many were not. Looking through those recommendations today, you would be impressed. Concerns about bear predation of deer fawns were raised, expansion of DIF&W’s landowner relations program was recommended, and DIF&W was urged to resolve problems with the federal lynx listing.

In 2007, SAM put many of the recommendations into ambitious legislative proposals and Gerry Lavigne prepared an exceptional briefing paper explaining each and every proposal. Included were four proposals to attract new hunters, two to improve access to private land, and others covering a whole lot of issues from expanding coyote hunting opportunity to opening the firearms season on deer a week later.

2009 Working Group

DSCN8233In 2009, DIF&W created a Deer Predation Working Group, and that group issued more recommendations focused on reducing the population of coyotes.

In 2011, Gerry Lavigne wrote, for SAM, a fascinating report: Deer Management at the Crossroads – a status report on efforts to restore deer populations in eastern and northern Maine. Gerry’s report focused on three things that he thought were necessary to improving deer survival.

“First, the loss of deer wintering habitat must be reversed,” he wrote. “Second, too many deer are being killed by predators, chiefly eastern coyote and black bear. Third, hunting of antlerless deer must remain very limited to improve annual survival of adult does.” And he noted that bucks-only restrictions in eastern and northern Maine, in place for 27 years, “have probably slowed the decline in deer populations in the northern half of Maine, but they have been insufficient to reverse that decline… Continued application of conservative doe harvest strategies remains essential to successful deer recovery, but it must be complimented by predator control and wintering habitat restoration.”

With that report came more recommendations including this one: “DIFW should identify additional sources of funding, and/or curtail less urgent programs to focus on deer recovery work. Likewise, personnel need to be added where needed to implement new and ongoing deer recovery work. Some of this additional staffing may be accomplished through re-assignment of personnel from less urgent programs.”

Coming from DIF&W’s longtime deer biologist, I thought these recommendations were remarkable. But they didn’t happen.

The Trahan/Smith Deer Plan

On December 13, 2010, three dozen outdoor leaders, including DIF&W wildlife staff and representatives of the state’s major sportsmen’s groups and clubs, spent a day at SAM’s Augusta Conference Center to help create a comprehensive deer initiative designed to build and sustain a large deer herd throughout the state. The group gathered at the invitation of Senator David Trahan. I organized and facilitated the meeting, in my last month at SAM.

The plan we created, which became known as the Trahan/Smith Deer Plan, was consistent with the recommendations of DIF&W’s Deer Task Force, issued in December of 2007, and DIF&W’s Deer Predation Working Group, issued in January of 2009. While we recognized and applauded their work, our plan proposed a much more aggressive effort in all areas and a greater emphasis on some elements.

On Friday of this week, I will share that plan, and all its recommendations with you, hoping that it will stimulate a new effort, by SAM and its executive director Dave Trahan, to advocate for these recommendations, most of which were never embraced by the legislature or implemented by the department.

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.