Maine’s deer hunters disappeared along with the deer

buck twoThirty eight years ago, when Linda and I moved to Mount Vernon, opening day of the firearms season on deer would find the woods of Mount Vernon full of hunters. Some mornings it sounded, from the shots, like a war zone. These days, the woods are quiet on opening day and throughout the season, with just an occasional shot. And I don’t see the vehicles parked along every rural road like I used to.

Gerry Lavigne, the veteran deer biologist at DIF&W who is now retired, used to do his own calculation of hunter numbers each year, sorting through the various licenses to count each hunter only once. Part of the problem with only looking at total sales is that some hunters purchase more than one license (archers and gun hunters, for example).

Gerry estimated that 1981 was the peak year for sales of hunting licenses, with 197,697. Sales dropped by 22 percent to 154,808 in 1997 and stuck there. The average the following decade was 156,620, according to Lavigne. The loss of nonresident hunters was particularly worrisome.

Maine’s lifetime licenses have saved the day and the department, at least as far as license sale numbers are concerned. I am proud of the role that the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine played in convincing the legislature and department to initiate the lifetime license program in the late 1990s.

In 1999, the year before lifetime licenses were offered, DIF&W sold 168,798 hunting licenses to residents. In 2014, the agency sold only 142,562 annual hunting licenses to residents. But 53,584 hunters had lifetime licenses by that year. That includes my two grandsons, ages 9 and 11. So a total of 196,146 hunters had licenses that allowed them to hunt deer in 2014. Of course, that doesn’t mean they all hunted deer.

I thank Bill Swan, DIF&W’s Director of Licensing, for promptly responding to my request for license sales data for 2014. He won’t have final data for 2015 until sometime in May, when I will update this analysis.

Surprising Data

I’m focused here on deer hunters, although some of the other numbers surprised me. For example, only 1,373 residents purchased a small game license in 2014. Perhaps it’s time to get rid of that (my proposal for a comprehensive hunting license would do that).

A lot more nonresidents purchase the small game license. Last year 2,455 purchased the small game license, and another 2,225 bought a 3-day small game license. Still small numbers, for sure.

The department and legislature has spent quite a bit of time on the apprentice hunting license and issues, but only 1,067 gun hunters purchased that license in 2014, and just 86 archers. Nonresidents purchased 143 apprentice firearms hunting licenses, 11 archery, and 66 small game apprentice licenses.

Last year 12,177 junior hunting licenses were sold. Sales of that license peaked in 2003 at 17,578. Only 25 residents purchased the special serviceman hunting license.

Aliens – yes, that’s what DIF&W chooses to call our friends from other countries, despite attempts by some legislators over the years to change that term – purchased only 31 combination hunting/fishing licenses, while 242 bought a big game and 69 bought a small game hunting license. 13 purchased an archery license. We’ve lost a lot of Canadian hunters over the last decade.

Deer Hunters

It’s not possible to sort through the data that I have and come up with the number who hunted deer in 2014, but most estimate that number to be no higher than 160,000.

So let’s look back a ways in time. Dean Bennett, in his wonderful book, Ghost Buck, recently published by Islandport press, included this information: In 1936, one of every eight Mainers hunted deer and enjoyed a success rate of 19 percent. By 1950, 134,000 residents hunted, nearly 15 percent of all adults, and close to 18,000 nonresidents. Of those hunters, about 121,000 hunted deer, and they shot a stunning 39,000 of them, meaning that 1 in every 3 hunters got their deer!

We harvested 22,490 deer in 2014, giving us a success rate of just 11.5 percent if all big game license holders hunted that year. If you went with the estimate of 160,000 deer hunters, then 14 percent took a deer. Not quite as good as we did in 1950!

Also, of the 1,304,152 Maine residents over the age of 18, less than 15 percent purchased a hunting license. Yup, those of us who hunt are a small minority.

Nonresidents

Gerry Lavigne’s analysis showed that the number of nonresident deer hunters – the cash cows for DIF&W who pay top dollar for Maine hunting licenses – had declined sharply, with a devastating impact on guides, sporting camps, and rural Maine businesses. The sale of hunting licenses to nonresidents peaked in 1989 at 45,303, dropping to 37,327 in 2006. Since then, the slide has been even more dramatic.

DIF&W sold just 16,421 big game hunting licenses to nonresidents in 2014. If you add hunt/fish combination licenses to that total, then 20,803 nonresidents were able to hunt deer in 2014. Of course, not all of them did that. The total includes all other big game hunters including bear, moose, and turkeys.

Alien numbers have declined by 75 percent between 1998 and 2014, although the actual numbers are small, declining from 976 in 1998 to 242 in 2014.

Down East Books will published my book on Maine Sporting Camps in April. I asked sporting camp owners what their greatest challenges are, and most put the loss of hunters and anglers right at the top. Deer hunting in the 1980s was the most profitable business for Claybrook Mountain Lodge in Highland Plantation. Today, it’s their least profitable. The Goodmans in Patton once hosted 110 to 120 deer hunters every November, many of them from Pennsylvania. The last year they offered deer hunting at their lodge, they got only 6 hunters. They no longer are open during the deer season. These experiences are typical throughout the sporting camp industry. And the impact of the loss of deer hunters has also been tough on other businesses in northern and western Maine, from guides to restaurants.

Where are the deer?

It’s not hard to figure out what happened to Maine’s deer hunters. Maine guide and outdoor writer Bob Humphrey presented the stark and disappointing statistics in his “Hunting” column in the Maine Sunday Telegram on January 3.

In New England, Maine is last in the number of deer harvested per square mile, just 0.07. “Though Maine is seven times larger than Connecticut, its deer population is less than double that of Connecticut,” Bob reports. And New York’s deer population is ten times that of Maine. Even New Hampshire, only a quarter of Maine’s size, has half as many deer as we do. “On a square mile basis, New Hampshire’s overall deer kill is slightly less than double Maine’s, and the bow kill is seven times that of Maine,” says Bob. Some of Bob’s other numbers are sobering, too. In New England, our archery hunt is second to last.

Of course, we take pride in our big buck numbers. But that’s where the news is perhaps most distressing. “Of the 13 Northeastern states from Maine to Virginia, Maine’s annual buck harvest has the second-lowest percentage of bucks 3 ½ years old or older,” reports Bob.  One reason for this problem, he says, is that we have the highest proportion (62%) of yearling bucks in our harvest of any state in the nation.

I was particularly astonished by this from Bob: “Diminutive Delaware is the only Atlantic coast state outside of New England with a lower deer kill than Maine’s, but their hunters take over seven deer per square mile each year.” Wow!

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. 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.