Management of wildlife habitats is mostly left to the discretion of private landowners, which makes management of our big game animals a challenge for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The agency’s new big game management plan notes that white-tailed deer are the only species that receives habitat protection. 200,000 acres of Maine forest is zoned as deer wintering area. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to prevent the crash of our deer herd in northern and western sections of Maine during two severe winters.
This is the second of my series of columns on the new big game management plan which includes moose, deer, bear, and turkeys. The plan reports “excellent habitat conditions for deer and turkey across much of southern and central Maine, and for moose and bear across northern, western, and Downeast portions of the state.”
I found this to be alarming: “Over 20,000 collisions between vehicles and deer, moose, bear, and turkey occurred on Maine roadways from 2011-2015, with nine human fatalities and an estimated $137 million economic impact.” The plan also reports that “all four big game can cause significant losses to agricultural crops and stored feed.”
Of serious concern was this: “surveys of small landowners conducted in 1991 and 2016 demonstrated a dramatic increase in the amount of posted land, from 14.9% in 1991 to as much as 72% in 2016.” Clearly, we need a better strategy and programs to keep land open to hunting.
The plan notes that “MDIFW will need to take proactive steps to ensure that support for hunting does not erode over time.” I’d say that’s an understatement. But the plan offers a good suggestion for what needs to be done: “the Department must increase awareness by the general public on the ways that regulated hunting benefits local communities, such as maintaining healthy wildlife populations, limiting disease transmission, providing funding for wildlife conservation and public land acquisition, reducing human-wildlife conflicts, and providing a source of lean, nutritious protein.”
DIFW is already testing a new process to track conflicts with black bears, a good idea given the significant increase in the bear population and the lack of bear hunters.
These strategies apply to all four species. Some are already underway while others are part of DIFW’s core work program.
• Implement electronic data entry at Big game stations to improve the availability and accuracy of harvest data
• Develop a comprehensive public outreach program about MDIFW, wildlife management, and hunting, focused on non-consumptive users
• Implement a hunter recruitment, retention, and reactivation program
• Identify options to simplify the hunter license and permit system to increase participation and maintain vital participation/effort data collection (I especially like this)
• Improve tracking and recording of human-wildlife conflicts
• Maintain the Landowner Relations Program to acknowledge the important contribution of landowners in maintaining wildlife habitat, to help ensure hunting access.