Improving Maine’s Deer Hunting

Posted on March 4, 2014

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“There’s a buzz about the deer season. People are emailing, calling, telling us about the number of deer they are seeing,” said Ravana. “Now is a good time to be a hunter in Maine.”         Kyle Ravana, MDIFW Deer Biologist

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Really Kyle, are you sure about this? Is it really a good time to be a deer hunter in Maine? The average age of today’s deer hunter is 47, which would remind many of us of a time when deer kill statistics reached nearly 40,000 annually to include bucks heavy of body with antlers to match. Maine has long been renowned as a great deer hunting State, boasting some of the largest whitetail specimens in the Northeast. Sadly that is no longer the case, at least for now. Many variables have contributed to the overall decline in deer numbers, including two significant ones: severity of two back-to-back winters (08-09), and the reduction in the quality and quantity of deer yards, the over-winter habitat. Less deer to hunt means lower success rates and dissatisfied hunters.

There has been much talk about how Maine can improve the deer hunting. There are a whole host of ideas and possible solutions being volunteered. When it comes to hot button issues like deer hunting, everyone has an opinion. Some of these ideas are based on sound biological reasons while others are nothing more than people’s selfish desires. What usually happens during times of intense discussion around a topic that many folks are passionate about is the entire process becomes skewed due to emotions running high. Pieces of the issue are discussed without considering the entire story. Comparisons are made that are way out of context and ideas are tendered that really will not work. Square pegs don’t fit into round holes, not even if they are forced.

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Whitetails are a renewable resource that can be managed for herd density objectives using one of the following four density goals:

  1. Maximum biological carrying capacity. This plan allows for the most possible deer that the land can sustain: 100 deer per square mile
  2. Maximum sustained yield. This plan produces the highest hunter yield and supports between 40-to-60 deer per square mile
  3. Cultural carrying capacity. This plan produces population levels tolerable to those folks living within that management district and supports a population of 15-to-20 deer per square mile
  4. Maximum supportable population. This plan is dependent on the amount of available deer yard space and is managed at 50% of the winter habitats carrying capacity

Here in Maine, our whitetails are managed using both cultural and maximum supportable capacity plans in different Wildlife Management Districts (WMDs). Biologists have been entrusted to manage the state’s whitetail population and to ensure that it continues to be a resource for future generations. In so doing, their charge is far more than trying to keep disgruntled hunters happy (the hunters who pay license fees that keep them employed). They have the job of monitoring the herd’s overall health and sustainability based upon what the deer eat and where they live, which in turn governs how many deer should be living within each WMD. This value can and does change annually and  seasonally. In reality, it’s a tightrope act where on any given day someone is going to be second-guessing their decisions. It has often been said that managing whitetails is far easier than managing people.

Current Management Plan

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“After the severe winters of ’08 and ’09, the department instituted Maine’s Game Plan For Deer, a three-pronged approach to restore Maine’s deer herd,” said Chandler Woodcock, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “The three core principles of the game plan for deer include protecting and enhancing deer wintering areas, deer population management and focused predator control.”

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In dissecting this three-pronged approach it must be remembered that it takes 40 years to grow a canopy over the deer’s head to enhance wintering areas, and until that objective is reached overall herd densities will continue to rise and fall with each winter’s severity. And then you throw the following recent statement made by MDIFW’s lead deer biologist, Kyle Ravana, into the equation and it quite frankly leaves one further perplexed on the path ahead: “My philosophy on deer is to move toward a more specific density goal. I would like to use a new system of managing for the health of the deer, rather than how many there are per square mile. That number doesn’t tell you if the deer are healthy.” Is that to mean we cannot have both?  The last time I checked, the two are not mutually exclusive. Predation has always been part of the landscape and if truth be told, when whitetails are provided the space necessary for optimum escape trails throughout their wintering grounds the impact of predators becomes minimal. So, what we are left with is deer population management, which according to MDIFW “Is the any-deer permit system, which regulates the harvest of does. One male deer will breed with multiple does, so by adjusting the number of female deer removed from the population, biologists can manage the deer population.” What about quality? Can we also enhance the quality of our buck population simultaneously?

Antler Restrictions

 

As good stewards, game managers must find biologically sound ways to manage their states respective deer herd. In accomplishing this management plan, they must also satisfy the taxpayer, environmentalists, hunters and naturalists alike without compromising the quantity or quality of the available deer. In order to facilitate this challenge, management practices must be implemented that may or may not be favorable to one or more groups concerned. Hunting has traditionally been the primary tool used to meet management objectives. Because hunters fund Fish & Game Departments through license fees, their opinions should understandably carry the most weight.

Meeting Objectives

There was a time when a huntsman could hunt for and harvest a deer of his or her own choosing. But as deer numbers began to decline, managers needed a system that would better control annual harvests. ‘Bucks-only’ hunting was initiated in several New England states to help rebuild diminishing herds. As the whitetail rebounded it then became necessary to begin removing antlerless deer through a permit system. Unfortunately, deeply entrenched traditions and the unwillingness by many to shoot a doe have exacerbated the problem of having too many does and not enough mature males in the population. So how do we fix the problem while at the same time ensuring that the hunting fraternity remains satisfied without limiting hunting opportunities?

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According to MDIFW, the most telling sign is the annual buck kill, an index used by the department to note trends in the population. Maine’s buck kill has increased each of the past four years. Last year’s buck harvest increased 23% from the previous year. In much of the state, the buck kill exceeded the 10-year average, another sign the deer population has rebounded. What is not stipulated is the age of the bucks being harvested. A higher  percentage of 11/2 –year olds in the harvest reveals the absence of mature males within the herd. Until the buck population is allowed to age, providing a healthy balance, objectives towards a ‘healthy herd’ will fall short of management goals, continue to place undue stress on the herd and further frustrate hunters.

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Antler restrictions are another tool used to effectively manage whitetails. Despite it being foreign in the Northeast, this practice is not new. Currently, 24 states have some form of mandated antler point restrictions with Arkansas, Mississippi and most recently, Pennsylvania implementing statewide restrictions. In fact, Pennsylvania is a classic model for this type of management. Gary Alt, former chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Deer Management, enacted a statewide antler restriction as a last-ditch effort to address his state’s chronic under harvest. Yearling bucks are now given the opportunity to reach the next age class. “What we are trying to do is have a more natural antlered-buck-to-adult-doe ratio and a more natural breeding (season)”, according to Alt. “We believe that reducing the number of adult does and increasing the antlered buck population is in the best interest of the deer resource.”

The chief objective of antler restrictions is to place more emphasis on antlerless deer harvests, which in turn aids in reducing the herd density. This is no guarantee that buck numbers will increase, but it will certainly augment the proportion of antlered bucks in the herd. Initially, fewer bucks will be harvested, but with each passing year the age structure of the buck population becomes better balanced. Instead of 50 percent or more of the annual buck harvest being comprised of 1 ½ year old bucks sporting their first set of antlers, there will be more mature adult bucks available to hunters.

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It is a well documented and agreed upon fact among biologists that by letting bucks mature, it helps create healthier, vigorous deer herds so long as enough does are harvested annually. When implemented as a management tool, antler restrictions accomplishes four key goals: a better control upon the deer population, much improved deer habitat, a more refined buck-to-doe ratio and a better defined breeding hierarchy.

 The Criteria 

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when mandating antler restrictions is creating a minimum. What may work fine for one state may not be the right criteria for another state. Furthermore, the minimum set in one WMD may be too stringent or loose to apply in another given WMD within the same state. The reasoning for this is that antlers grow proportionally to genetics and the quality of feed available to the resident deer. Also, here in the Northeast, whitetails face harsh winters where stress plays a pivotal role in antler development. Based upon where a buck lives can mean the difference between having optimum or stunted antler growth.

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As a general rule, most 1 ½ year old bucks will grow spikes or forks as their first set of antlers, though it is common for that age class to sport six or eight points under good conditions. It is also true that under poor conditions or inferior genetics that a 2-½ year old may only grow a small six point rack. Most states that have mandated antler restrictions adopted either a 3 or 4 point-per-side requirement. But, with that criterion, how many of those bucks harvested meeting the minimum standard are the best-developed 1-½ year old males? In Dooly County Georgia, restrictions require a buck to have a 15-inch outside spread to be legal, which may go further in protecting all 1- ½ year olds and some 2- ½ year old bucks. Is an antler restriction brewing on a horizon here in Maine and if so, how will the contentious practice be embraced?

 

Controversy

Restrictions – just the mere mention of the word brings a strong reaction from impassioned hunters. For those die-hard Yankees who, when faced with any type of change will stubbornly resist under the premise that “nobody’s going to dictate to me what I can and can’t shoot. I’ve paid for my license and that entitles me to take a deer without having to scrutinize the beast prior to shooting.” On the flip-side are those individuals that seek to enhance their deer hunting experience with a reasonable opportunity at a mature buck.

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In 1993, the deer hunters of Georgia lobbied for and were granted antler restrictions. Michigan did the same less than a decade later. If the hunters of this state were to come together, much like those aforementioned and generate creative ideas that would and could affect authentic change perhaps we too could see similar results. If not, we face the alternative, of which Tom Heberlein opines, “With no plans and no organization, about all they can do is complain to their state governments-and they’re doing that!”

According to Larry Castle, Mississippi deer program leader, “After seven years of the four-point minimum, I can say that our hunters love it. By the third year of the program, hunters were seeing more big deer than they had ever seen before. Today, more than 85 percent of the hunters favor antler restrictions. The limitations have also enabled us to kill more antlerless deer, which was one of our original goals.”

In order for a program to succeed the idea must first be sold to those who will be involved, mainly the hunters. To accomplish this they have to be educated regarding the motive behind the change and what the ultimate final results can produce. No one wants something pushed down their throats without understanding the benefits. Sure, there will be initial resistance by some. Gary Alt faced this opposition in a big way when he initiated restrictions. But after only two years, hunters in Pennsylvania experienced a significant change in the quality of bucks.

The commonly held misconception that antler restrictions are nothing more than a trophy program to grow larger racked bucks for ego driven hunters couldn’t be further from the truth. It is a program designed to better the deer herd, alleviate the impact on the animal’s habitat and provide diverse hunting opportunities for all involved.

Conclusion

Scan477-2The good old days when it was a  good time to be a deer hunter in Maine.

Is now a good time to be a deer hunter in Maine? Not in my opinion. The ‘good old days’ are far from having returned. Is it better than a couple of years ago? Yes, but let’s not confuse better with what once was and could be again. Currently, deer hunters have the ability to decide whether or not to let a buck grow or put him in the freezer when sighting down the barrel of a gun. Unfortunately, not every hunter is discriminating when making this decision and thus, the need to impose mandates, restrictions and bag limits. When considering our view on antler restrictions, the all-important question for game managers and sportsmen alike to contemplate is what is best for the habitat, hunter and health of the white-tailed deer?

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer