Huts and Deer Yards
By Roberta Scruggs
Created Feb 25 2008 - 10:43pm
If you care about deer, here's some good news about the proposed "hut" near Grand Falls on the Dead River. After months of controversy, the Western Mountains Foundation will not build it in an important deer wintering area. The bad news is a recreational trail through the deer yard has not been relocated.
But Gerry Lavigne, the retired state wildlife biologist who watched over Maine's deer for decades, is pushing hard for an alternative route that would protect deer and resolve the conflict.
"One more minor adjustment could make this all work for deer," Lavigne says.
I put "hut" in quotation marks because that word doesn't really fit the 40-person complex proposed in remote Spring Lake Township as part of the 180-mile Maine Huts & Trails system. It would include:
" A main hut with attached bathroom and porches/walkways (maximum dimension 90 by 40 feet).
" A 12-person bunkhouse with attached porches/decks (maximum dimension 19 by 24 feet).
" An 8-person bunkhouse with attached porches/decks (maximum dimension 18 by 32 feet).
" A private bunkhouse with attached porches/decks (maximum dimension 24 by 34 feet).
" A generator shed (6 by 6 feet).
The relocation of the complex wasn't a choice, but a necessity. The staff of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) was recommending a permit for the initial location be denied because of negative impact on deer. Nor would moving the hut complex 700 feet, as WMF proposed, have been enough, according to Scott Rollins, LURC's manager of permitting and compliance.
So WMF now plans to build about a mile southeast of the initial location, Rollins said. It has asked LURC to decide only on the permit for its Flagstaff "hut" at a March 5 meeting. WMF will submit a proposal for the new Grand Falls site, which must be reviewed. Then there will be another public comment period. So a decision on the Grand Falls permit probably is months away.
That gives WMF plenty of time to reroute the trail, which Lavigne insists would be harmful for a deer population that already is struggling.
"I think it's very good as far as the deer wintering area goes that the lodge has been moved," Lavigne said. "But that's only part of the story. Their trail overlays the major deer trail system entirely. And that is sure to continue to disrupt the deer."
The proposed WMF trail follows the major deer trail along the river for three miles, Lavigne said. To get to Grand Falls, guests would go right through the deer bedding area. Each time a person and deer met on the trail, the deer would be forced to flee - using up resources on which their very lives may depend.
White-tailed deer are at the northern end of their range here and their survival depends on whether they have enough body fat to last until spring. Fawns and mature bucks, which lose weight during the fall breeding season, are the most vulnerable to starving. The key to survival is expending as little energy as possible to get food and shelter.
So deer seek out areas - deer yards, such as the one near Grand Falls - where softwoods form a canopy overhead, reducing the snow piling up underneath and providing shelter from harsh winter winds. If they're forced to plunge through snow, they pay a high price.
"People who are not hunters think that their use of woodlands is completely benign," Lavigne said. "But there are situations like this where they can harm wildlife by being too near it too often. I mean you're walking this trail and you start seeing deer and you just want to see more. You want to get close to them, take pictures. And day after day after day when that happens, deer are expending energy that they can't afford to lose."
Lavigne pressed home his point by telling the story of a deer he once spotted near the point where WMF proposes to put a suspension bridge over the Dead River. He heard barking so he crept up to the river's edge. He saw a hound baying at a yearling doe, which had clambered into the whitewater in an effort to escape. She eventually made it to Lavigne's side of the river, climbed up the bank and bedded down. But that night the temperature fell below zero.
"When I came back the next morning, she was still lying in her bed - dead," he said. "She got overheated being chased by that hound. Thoroughly soaked. Chilled. And couldn't retain her temperature overnight."
So to him, a minor adjustment to WMF's proposed trail is well worth the lives it might save.
"Rather than following the river, go up over the shoulder of Basin Mountain and then strike right straight down for Grand Falls," he urges WMF officials. "Go right through the woods, like your access trail was planning to do. That way it doesn't follow the river and you're not disrupting the deer's major trail."
Roberta Scruggs writes about Maine's environment.