The Good Old Days

Posted on July 26, 2011

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Maine’s Deer Hunting Past…And Future

 

“Long may it (white-tailed deer) haunt the swamps and the hardwood ridges, to delight
– and confound – the hearts of the people of Maine.”

–         Don C. Stanton

 

“…There is much that is both
interesting and romantic in the deer’s story. Secondly, the present and the
future can benefit from the lessons of the past. For one thing, the “good old
days” were not always good, and with reason. If today’s Maine deer slayer (who
sometimes is inclined to think that there use to be a deer behind every tree)
were to go back to the late 1850’s or early 1860’s, he would have found deer
almost literally “behind every tree” in many areas. Yet a few years later, in
the late 1860’s, he would have had trouble finding even “track stew” in most
areas of the State. The same thing is not likely to happen today on such a
grand scale, but the deer still has the same requirements today as it had one
hundred years ago – or four hundred years ago. Its welfare depends on how well
those basic requirements are met.

 

Today we have the knowledge and
the tools to successfully meet the deer’s basic requirements. That it has come
out on top so often in the past is proof that the deer will cooperate if it is
given the chance. If the lesson of the past are carefully heeded, the
white-tail can be with us here in Maine
indefinitely.”

It may surprise you to learn that
the preceding lines were part of the Game Division Bulletin printed in 1963 and
entitled, A History Of The White-Tailed Deer In Maine. The irony of this is
glaring, especially considering the low deer densities currently residing here,
particularly in the Northern part of the State. But, and it certainly is a very
large ‘but’, “the deer still has the same requirements today as it had one hundred
years ago… Its welfare depends on how well those requirements are met.”

To accurately understand ‘how
well those requirements have been met’, we must first look back in order to
both judge and compare with the current status of Maine’s whitetail herd. In so doing, it
becomes imperative to refer back to this historically accurate analog.

During the growth of the pulp
wood industry, which stabilized the type of cutting being done from the
mid-1800’s and forward, many large areas of merchantable trees were removed
that consisted primarily of coniferous cover. What that meant to deer residing
in Northern Maine was that wintering yards
were summarily wiped out eliminating both food and cover. “In the early
1880’s,” according to the Game Division report, “deer were still absent or
uncommon in northern Maine.
Two accounts of canoe trips down the Allagash
River in the autumns of
1880 and 1881, one by Steele and another by Hubbard, commonly mention moose and
caribou. Steele makes no mention of deer at all, while Hubbard makes only two
references to deer tracks which he saw. All indications are that moose and
caribou were still far more plentiful than deer in northern Maine at that time.” (Does this sound
familiar with the exception of the caribou now being completely absent?)

 

And then, beginning around
1890-to-1895 as only the whitetail can do, populations began resurging. This
population explosion lasted until about 1904 when, according to the report, “a
great controversy was raging around camp fires, cracker barrels, and in the
sporting press of the day. Some areas were experiencing poor hunting, where two
or three years previously deer numbers had been legion.”

Many reasons were presented for
the marked decrease with the most viable being, “In the light of present
knowledge…it is almost certain that two severe winters, coupled with food
shortage, were responsible.” (Again I inquire, is this not the same tune being
played today?)

As I follow the historical records of Maine’s
whitetails, regardless of the cutting practices, hunting pressure, bag limits
of any era, winter severity has and continues even today to have the biggest
impact on deer herd densities. For example, the winters of 1916-1917 and
1917-1918 were severe, which in turn significantly dropped the available deer
numbers and reduced the annual deer kill following this weather phenomenon. This
happened again during the winter of 1933-1934. Leading up to what was
considered one of the most severe winters on record for northern New England, “Northern Maine was the real stronghold of deer at this time,” according to the records. “The pulpwood operations which had swept over
this area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had, in spite of
their shortcomings, created much good deer habitat.”

So what have we learned from
history? Perhaps the old cliché, “Those that refuse to learn from history are
bound to repeat it?” Here we are in 2011 with a tremendous volume of insight
regarding how best to manage a renewable resource, to steward that which has
been entrusted to us yet, we find ourselves in relatively the same situation
experienced back in the early 1900’s. If we indeed have, “the knowledge and
tools to successfully meet the deer’s basic requirements”, and given the fact
that “the deer still has the same requirements today as it had one hundred
years ago” what has gone wrong? Remember, “Its welfare depends on how well
those requirements are met.”

 

The most basic need of all living
species, deer and man alike is sustenance and shelter; short of either of the
two and survival becomes questionable at best. Without pointing fingers, laying
blame or casting aspersions onto anyone, that certainly won’t fix the problem,
we must focus our attention on the things that can and will help bring back deer
densities to levels supportable to the habitat they dwell within. How soon and
better yet, how well we do that will have a direct impact on how quickly deer
numbers rebound. Otherwise, the alternative is ultimately left up to Mother
Nature and the severity of each subsequent winter, which will determine the
final outcome of just how many deer survive to see another spring.

Fittingly, on the final page of
The History Of The White-Tailed Deer In Maine, the author concludes,

“…we have followed the white-tailed
deer as it has bounded across Maine’s
history from pre-colonial days to the present. We have seen it match its wits
against wolves, Indians, the pioneer whites, lumbermen and pulp cutters,
farmers, market and hide hunters, dogs, sportsmen, legislators, poachers, game
wardens, and biologists. We have seen it contend with too much forest and too
little forest, with fires and Maine
winters, with sporting camps and automobiles – with feast and famine. More
often than not it has come out on top.”

 

With the sportsman’s immutable
spirit, cooperation of landowners and sound biological insight from the
professionals working in tandem, I find no reason for that not to be the case
again. After all, it is everyone’s desire for the white-tail to “Long haunt the
swamps and the hardwood ridges, to delight-and confound-the hearts of the
people ofMaine.”

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