Maine's Deer Wintering Areas
News stories last week about a broken agreement to protect deer wintering area in northern Maine have opened a wide-ranging debate. Fingers of blame are pointing in many directions for the demise of northern Maine’s deer herd, and large landowners are getting their fair share of criticism for cutting too hard in deer wintering yards.
I happen to be in the thick of the debate, both because deer wintering habitat is a high priority issue for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, and because I joined Senator David Trahan in making the complaint against the Gardner’s logging company.
What’s the Problem?
The causes of the diminished population of deer are these:
1) two back-to-back very tough winters;
2) insufficient deer wintering yards and habitat;
3) predation by bears and coyotes.
This column will explore the deeryard issues and explain the problem with the Gardners.
Deer spend the winter in what we call “deer yards,” under a thick canopy of cover supplied by evergreen trees. During severe winters, they can’t survive without this cover.
For decades, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has worked with large landowners – primarily through voluntary agreements – to protect deeryards in the northern half of the state.
While there have been some successes, there have also been failures. The worst setbacks came with a crop of new landowners who refused to abide by the voluntary agreements and harvested their deeryards.
While fingers are pointing at landowners for cutting deeryards, there are many deeryards with few or any deer in them. The predators, bear and coyotes, are blamed. Coyotes feast on deer in the winter and bears eat lots of fawns in the spring.
Some landowners are doing a terrific job of managing deer wintering area in cooperation with DIF&W and on their own. For example, DIF&W Regional Wildlife Biologist Rich Hoppe reports that he has a great relationship with Irving Woodlands and the company is doing a good job of managing deer wintering habitat. Irving Woodlands manager John Gilbert recently told me that more than nine percent of the company’s extensive land holdings are managed for deer wintering habitat, a very significant commitment from them.
DIF&W’s Director of Resource Management, Dr. Ken Elowe, says on Maine’s two million acres of conservation land, deer wintering habitat management is a top priority. But these areas don’t seem to have any more deer than other areas.
The Maine Forest Products Council, Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine, and DIF&W have created new guidelines for managing deer wintering habitat, and both MFPC and SWOAM have promised to encourage their members to utilize the guidelines.
The disappearance of deer from the North Woods is already severely impacting sporting camps, guides, butchers, taxidermists, and all others who benefit from the spending of deer hunters – including motels and gas stations. As I talked with him recently, there was more than the look of desperation in the eye of a third-generation owner of one of Maine’s finest sporting camps who wondered if his son – the fourth generation - would be able to keep the family business going.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will also take a revenue hit from the decision of nonresident deer hunters to hunt elsewhere this year. Those hunters may never come back.
This is a serious problem for DIF&W because its primary hunting constituency is deer hunters. Although the number of deer hunters (resident and nonresident) declined by about 50,000 since the early 1980s, they still number about 170,000. No other constituency of hunters comes close to that. There are about 50,000 grouse hunters, and all other game animals attract less than 20,000 hunters.
Turkey hunting may be the most exciting hunting opportunity the state now offers, but the number of turkey hunters is declining, totaling only about 18,000 this year.
In 2007, DIF&W raised $3,197,730 from the sale of nonresident big game and hunt/fish combination licenses. Any significant loss of nonresident hunters really hurts this already under-funded agency.
Here’s a good example of economic impact in the north country.
North Maine Woods, a three million acre forest with gated access, welcomed 35 percent of its annual visitors in the month of November in the 1980s, according to NMW manager Al Cowperthwaite. This year it was about fifteen percent.
A total of 5,500 deer hunting parties entered North Maine Woods this past November. They brought out less than 100 deer. Only one in fifty-five hunting parties was successful, taking one deer per 35,000 acres. Maine once advertised that a nonresident’s chance of getting a deer in Maine was better than fifty-five percent. Today they don’t have a fifty-five percent chance of even seeing a deer track.
At some northern Maine game registration stations, more bear than deer or moose were tagged. For example, the Fish River station registered forty-seven bears, twenty-three moose, and just four deer. The Portage station tagged ninety-two deer in 2007, thirty-one deer in 2008, but only nine deer this year.
After a bruising battle, the legislature authorized a complicated land sale and swap that captured the land surrounding Katahdin Lake, just east of Baxter Park, and gave that land to the Park.
The fight at the legislature erupted for two reasons: the traditional uses of that land, hunting and snowmobiling, would be banned; and some very valuable public lands would be sold.
The harshest criticism of the deal came from Bob Seymour, a University of Maine forestry faculty member since 1981 and a charter member of the Bureau of Parks and Lands Silvicultural Advisory Committee.
Seymour didn’t oppose the acquisition of Katahdin Lake. But he strongly opposed making existing public lands a part of that deal. Here is just some of what Seymour wrote in blistering testimony.
“DOC is proposing selling off 7,700 acres of well-wooded green-certified public forest land that has exceptional public values (rate wildlife habitat, undeveloped shore frontage,” etc.) so we can then turn around and buy other run-of-the-mill lands, likely with no such values.”
“If this land sale were truly in the interests of the Maine people,” said Seymour, “Then the BPL foresters and biologists who work the land daily, and who manage these lands to the highest standards in the broad public interest, would be supportive. Quite the contrary. Every single one of these dedicated hard-working public servants I’ve talked to hates this deal.”
“To me, this speaks volumes and should be all the evidence you need to stop this ill-advised proposal,” concluded Seymour.
The normally mild-mannered UMO professor really stepped it up on this issue, railing against “overzealous bureaucrats who seek to sell off State assets when there are clearly better options.”
Speaking directly to legislators, Seymour wrote, “If you pass this bill as written, you will be tacitly accepting that this end justifies any means, however short-sighted and ill-conceived, and thereby dishonor Baxter’s legacy. And finally, acquisition of the Katahdin Lake parcel, rather than being a crowning achievement, would become a forever-tainted chapter in the history of Maine conservation.”
Partly in response to Seymour’s concerns, which were shared by several key legislators, the legislature added several provisions to the Resolve that authorized the sale of these public lands.
The lands, which were going to the Gardner family’s logging company (the owner of the Katahdin Lake parcel), were encumbered with several key provisions.
Section Two, Part 6, of the legislative Resolve requires the Gardners to enter into “an agreement with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to continue management of winter habitat for white-tailed deer on those lots that is consistent with the management agreement between DIF&W and the Department of Conservation in effect on March 30, 2006 and that the agreement will remain in effect as long as the grantee owns the lots.”
An investigation by Senator Trahan and myself proved, to us, that this has not been done. In fact, according to DOC’s very credible long-time wildlife biologist, Joe Wiley, the deer wintering habitat that was to be protected has instead been harvested and no longer provides winter shelter for deer.
In a series of emails obtained by Senator Trahan, Wiley and other wildlife biologists at the DOC and DIF&W notified their superiors, including the two commissioners of those agencies, Pat McGowan and Dan Martin, that the Gardners were violating the agreements. Sadly, nothing was done. Karin Tilberg, at that Deputy Commissioner of DOC and today Governor Baldacci’s top policy aid on conservation issues, was also copied on those emails.
The harvesting in the deeryards on those lots – which began only days after the Gardners obtained ownership - was not an accident. The Gardners even notified DIF&W, in writing, that they were going to cut the deeryards.
Last week, Joe Wiley and Allan Starr, an assistant Regional Wildlife Biologist in Enfield, submitted a three-page briefing paper providing their professional assessment that the deeryards on the public lands sold to the Gardners are gone.
In one of the largest deeryards, 350 acres in T2R4, the biologists wrote, “all of the HMA (deer yard) except the shoreland areas were heavily harvested to GLC specifications. Stocking in shore land areas was reduced by 40 percent. Softwood canopies are now open and intercept little snow. Functionally this HMA is unlikely to support wintering deer in its present condition.”
Senator Trahan and I enlisted the help of Ted Koffman, executive director of the Maine Audubon Society, and Representative John Piotti, Democratic House Majority Leader who chaired the legislative committee that conducted the hearings and endorsed the Katahdin Lake Resolve, to pursue this matter with us. Maine’s Secretary of State, Matt Dunlap, also participated in the discussions as we conducted the investigation and decided what to do with our findings.
Koffman and Piotti brought the matter to the attention of the Governor, who, after conducting his own inquiry, referred the matter to Maine’s Attorney General for further investigation and action.
Put into context, the problem with the Gardners is just one example of the on-going difficulty encountered by state agency biologists as they tried to protect critical deer wintering habitat throughout the state.
It’s a sad chapter, for sure, but just one chapter in a very long book that is still being written.