In the Maine Sunday Telegram on December 24, Bob Humphrey’s column on deer wintering areas was a good one, thoughtful and provocative. With Bob’s permission, I am sharing his column with you today. Here it is.
A few weeks back I offered some thoughts, facts and figures on the impact predators like coyotes have on deer. Space constraints precluded me from even mentioning black bears, which also take a healthy share of venison.
And predators in general are only one leg of the stool that impacts or supports our deer herd. They’re the low-hanging fruit, the easiest to identify and blame. There are others.
Habitat is defined as the area in which a particular species lives, seeks food, water and shelter, and reproduces. All animals require a certain amount of habitat. Biologists use the term “limiting factor” for some component of that habitat which is in shortest supply, the lowest hole in the bucket.
In Maine, the principal limiting factor for deer is suitable winter habitat.
“How is that possible when Maine has an estimated 17.5 million acres of forest land?” you ask. The operative word is suitable. They need sufficient area that meets certain criteria, including a protective canopy of older softwoods to reduce accumulated snow depth, making it easier for deer to travel for food while avoiding predators, and that also buffers the wind ameliorating temperatures. They also need nearby sources of food, primarily coarse woody browse. And they need travel corridors between yards, and between bedding and feeding areas.
Each winter, deer move into these deer wintering areas (DWAs) or deer yards, in some cases traveling enough distance to be considered a migration. Like the migrations of their larger cousins, the caribou, these migrations and destinations are traditional, the knowledge of their location passed down through successive generations. Take away one deer yard and the deer will not know where to go, even if a suitable habitat exists elsewhere. If we want to sustain a healthy deer herd, particularly in northern and Downeast Maine, we need to protect DWAs.
The state has tried several methods. Years ago I flew over, mapped and rated all the DWAs in Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Regions A and B as part of a statewide effort. Unfortunately the maps were never “officially recognized” and thus protection became largely voluntary. The greens and fairways of a rather prestigious country club just north of Portland now lie over what was once a very important deer yard. If that can happen literally in the back yards of the staunchest environmentalists, imagine what could happen in the north woods.
But the conflict places two basic tenets of our society at odds. One is the North American model of wildlife conservation, under which wildlife are common property, belonging to all citizens to be held in trust, and soundly managed by state and federal wildlife agencies.
The other is the rights of private landowners, which usually win the day. And that was the case after private (corporate) landowners successfully argued that regulations protecting DWAs deprived them of some of their rights and thus represented a taking. Our legislators agreed and urged the executors of our trust to seek alternative means of protection.
I was on the board of directors of the Maine chapter of the Wildlife Society when the concept of cooperative agreements was first introduced as a more palatable alternative. Like so many similar efforts, the well-intended agreements were labeled a blessing by some but a curse by others. Some saw them as the only viable option, given the circumstances. Others regarded them as the fox (or coyote) guarding the henhouse.
It’s important to put things into perspective. Private forest land also represents a supporting leg to a much larger stool, our state’s economy. The impact of Maine’s forest products industry is an estimated $8.5 billion. No mere pittance. And it represents jobs. But wildlife, particularly deer, should not be easily dismissed, either. Hunting (90 percent of which is directly related to white-tailed deer) brings $400 million annually to Maine’s economy. At least it used to. As the deer herd has dwindled, so have those crucial out-of-state dollars.
But before we point our respective fingers at the forest products industry, we need to take a look in the mirror, at ourselves and those charged with managing our property. Currently 92,000 acres of over 100,000 acres that MDIFW’s Wildlife Management Section is responsible for, and 571,000 acres of another 600,000 acres managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, is not being managed for winter deer habitat. I’ve been told by state wildlife managers that none of it could ever be suitable winter habitat, but I’m skeptical.
Maybe not now, but I find it hard to believe that if properly managed, maybe 30, 50 or 75 years from now, a healthy proportion of that land could be converted to DWAs. That, combined with Maine’s substantial land trust lands, could provide a substantial boost to our dwindling deer herd.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal.