Maine’s deer herd was reeling after brutal back-to-back winters between December of 2007 and March of 2009. Biologists said that during the first severe winter, as much as 30 percent of the state’s deer may have died.
Recovery, many cautioned, would take a long time. At least years. Decades? That wasn’t out of the question.
Since those doom-and-gloom days, there’s been a big shift. Biologists hunkered down and became even more conservative when allotting any-deer permits, which allow hunters the option of shooting bucks, does or fawns.
And Mother Nature cooperated, with four straight mild winters.
On Monday, that combination of factors had the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s deer biologist, Kyle Ravana, smiling.
“Now is a good time to be a hunter in Maine,” Ravana said.
Ravana explained that both statistical and anecdotal reports indicate that this could be a fantastic season for the state’s deer hunters.
First, the anecdotal: “A lot of people are saying this is the first time they’ve seen deer in their yards in the past five years, and they’re really happy to see it,” Ravana said. “I just gave a talk up in Presque Isle and they were talking about all the big bucks they’ve seen up there, and how many deer they’ve seen, and how many fawns they’ve seen. So it sounds like productivity is way up.”
Next, the more crucial statistical breakdown that has left Ravana and deer hunters eagerly awaiting Saturday’s Youth Deer Day and the Nov. 2 residents-only opening day:
“Our harvest has been increasing since the hard winters of 2008 and 2009. For all intents and purposes, I think our population is back to what it was before those winters,” Ravana said.
“Our long-term average population has been around 217,000 animals,” he said. “Right now our estimate is that we have around 203,000 animals in the state. We’re very close to our historical average.”
And that will likely mean that more hunters will be successful this season, Ravana said.
“Last fall we harvested almost 22,000 animals. Our long-term average in the state has been around 27,000,” Ravana said. “What we’re hoping to achieve this year is between 25,000 and 26,000 animals.”
Ravana said that the state’s deer harvest increased 14 percent from 2011 to 2012. At the same time, the buck harvest increased 23 percent. With 34 percent more any-deer permits having been allotted this year, he expects the total harvest to increase another 19 percent this year over last.
“Following those 2008 and 2009 winters, we’ve now had four consecutive below-average winters in the north country, which has been really good for our deer populations up there,” Ravana said. “For example, in [Wildlife Management] District 3, we had a historically high buck harvest [in 2012]. It was the highest on record since 1963.”
WMD 3 is in extreme northeastern Maine, and includes Madawaska. WMD 6 is just south of WMD 3, and includes Presque Isle.
Due to the increased population of deer up north, a limited number of any-deer permits were awarded to WMD 3 hunters this year, for the first time since 2000. And adjacent WMD 6 also has any-deer permits for the first time since 2007, Ravana said.
In Presque Isle alone, the recovery of the herd has been striking. During the 2009 hunting season, only seven deer were shot in Presque Isle. Last year, 28 were harvested by hunters in that city.
While the return to “average” status might not sound like much, it will be a very big deal for those who wondered if they’d ever see even a mediocre season in their lifetimes.
Consider: As recently as 2009, Ravana’s predecessor, Lee Kantar — a biologist who now focuses solely on moose — said that state biologists were considering all possible remedies for the deer crisis. Among those options: Shortening deer season in northern Maine.
Further study determined that the step wasn’t necessary, but one thing was certain: The deer herd in certain sections of the state were in serious trouble. Kantar and regional biologists managed the existing deer conservatively, hoped for mild winter weather, and exactly the weather the herd needed.
Now, the the tide has changed, even though some hunters have not spent as much time pursuing deer as they did before.
“Between 2011 and 2012, we saw a general decrease in hunter effort,” Ravana said. “Hunter numbers increased, which is great. But the amount of time they spent on the landscape pursuing deer decreased. You take that and [consider] the increase in harvest in the harvest … and how significant that was, it’s another good indicator that our population really grew between those two years.”
Another good indicator for those who provide services to traveling hunters: Maine seems to be back on the map for those who want to pursue a burly big woods buck.
“I’ve received calls and emails from people out of state, asking me about deer hunting,” Ravana said. “People from New Jersey, Alabama, New York — New York, of all places. That’s a big deer state — but they’re asking how the deer population’s doing statewide and how it’s looking for the North Maine Woods. They want to come up to the North Maine Woods and pursue a big deer.”
And after a half decade of doom and gloom, the state’s biologists can now smile when they tell those hunters what they know.
“I think this is going to be a really good year for Maine,” Ravana said.
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