On Youth Deer Day — Oct. 24 this year — I spoke with a hunter and his father at a local tagging station.
The dad told me that they’d seen a buck enter a field with his nose down, tracking a doe that had passed through just in front of him.
For years, friends and fellow hunters have told me that “the rut,” the mating period that makes bucks throw caution to the wind and do things they wouldn’t otherwise do — like walk within rifle range while preoccupied with a female — happens much later in the month.
And for years, biologists have told me that there’s no particular instant that the rut happens. Instead, the frequency of mating behavior can be better described on a bell-shaped curve, with very little going on early in the cycle, and a peak taking place sometime during hunting season.
Last week I spoke with Kyle Ravana, the deer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who explained that some level of breeding activity takes place much earlier — and later — than you might have thought.
“[The rut] is, for the most part, determined by photoperiod, [or the amount of daylight],” Ravana said.
“Year-in and year-out, hunters talk about how they feel that the rut is occurring later and later, but according to the data we’re getting, [the bulk of mating] is still occurring during that third week of November,” he said.
Ravana said biologists aren’t guessing; instead, they collect data that helps them pinpoint the peak of mating activity.
“To understand the rut, what we do is collect, annually, roadkill information,” he said. “We go out and we collect fetuses from road-killed does, and based on the size of those fetuses, we can come up with an estimate of when the fetus was conceived. By and large, probably 90 percent of our samples conceive around that third week of November.”
Of course, that leaves another 10 percent to account for. And it turns out that Maine deer hunters may actually witness breeding behavior at any time during the season … even during the early archery season.
“Going back to this roadkill data, We’ve had does that have conceived in early October,” Ravana explained. “And some even as late as the first week of January. They span a huge length of time.”
The lesson: The next time you tell your buddy that you saw a buck trailing a doe on opening day and he insists there’s no way the doe is interested in mating, you can tell him he might be wrong.
Each year, the DIF&W studies a number of different factors, including the severity of the most recent winter, before issuing a number of any-deer permits that allow hunters to target does and fawns.
This year, the department took a conservative approach, dropping the total from 37,185 in 2014 to 28,870 after a snowy winter took a toll on the state’s deer herd.
“Because we reduced the number of permits, we are expecting a decrease in the harvest,” Ravana said. “We’re projecting a harvest of probably around 21,000 animals, give or take.”
Last year’s harvest was originally announced at 22,490, but Ravana said the department has been receiving tagging station logs throughout the summer — after that total was released — and the actual harvest total from 2014 is around 23,500.
Ravana said that although last winter was snowy, much of the snow arrived late, and didn’t limit the deer herd’s mobility for a long period of time.
“Last year was above average [for winter severity], but in terms of how it actually impacted the population, it may not have had as severe an impact as what our metric tells us.”
Ravana said that despite the winter toll on deer last year, biologists estimate the state has a herd of 211,000 deer, just below the long-term average of 214,000.
Deer wearing collars
If you’re hunting in Wildlife Management District 17 — it stretches from the outskirts of Bangor to Madison and from Fairfield to Milo — you might come across some deer sporting fancy neckwear.
Ravana explained that several adult does have been fitted with GPS collars in that zone as part of an ongoing research project.
“If someone does harvest one, it would be great to be able to get the collar back so we can redeploy it,” Ravana said. “Don’t shy away from harvesting it. Understanding harvest rates is an important part of managing the deer, so we want to capture that [data] as well.”
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke