It seems that mostly what we hear these days is how predators, bears, mountain lions, wolves, coyote, bobcat, etc., have no effect on our deer herds. This of course is not true and is really a dishonest statement. Of course these large predators have an effect on the very areas in which they live. It might be more accurate to say that we don’t really notice the effect they are leaving behind until the game we hunt, which is often the same game these predators hunt, are disappearing.
If we look at the state of Maine as an example, here is a state that in the northern two-thirds there is essentially no more deer left. We have heard all the excuses – severe winters, loss of habitat, poor management, too many predators, etc. What we don’t seem to be getting a grasp on is what happens to our game management plans when the ecosystem gets torn to shreds by either uncontrollable circumstances(weather), or unpredicted effects(predators)?
I was emailing over the weekend with a good friend in Maine about the deer problems there. He made what I consider a profound and very accurate statement. He said, “Everything would be hunky-dory if we had not had two very severe winters in a row. It found all the weak spots in the management of the Maine deer herd.”
While I believe this statement to hold a lot of water, why is it we still are feeling this need to deny discussing some of those weaknesses other than blaming winters and habitat? As I pointed out just a minute ago, predators do make an impact on the very ecosystems that they live. In a robust ecosystem, most of us never pay notice to predators. In other words, there is plenty to go around – at least for now. So what happens when the ecosystem becomes lopsided? What happens when two severe winters in a row decimate a deer herd? What happens when two severe winters in a row finish off a deer herd that has already been weakened due to reduced habitat and too many predators, or at least what now appears as too many predators? These are some of the “weak spots” my friend was referring to.
Let’s take only one example, the mountain lion. But Tom! There are no mountain lions in Maine! Officially, there are no mountain lions in Maine nor are there any wolves and from my perspective it can remain that way until circumstances warrant a change.
Perhaps two months ago, this same friend sent me a photograph he had taken in Maine of what he believed to be a mountain lion kill of a whitetail deer.
I sent the picture for an opinion to some people who I knew had far more experience with mountain lions than either the two of us. Dr. Valerius Geist, a renowned biologist and expert on ungulates, commented this way:
We live in the boonies surrounded by large predators, including mountain lions. Deer vacate the land when puma show up. We know that from old work done with radio collared mountain lions and deer. So, no big surprise that the deer have vanished. Why the surprise over puma being present in the East?
I also got a response from George Dovel, editor of the Outdoorsman and years of experience in the outdoors.
Let me emphasize I am neither a cougar expert nor an expert cougar (mountain lion) hunter but I was a close friend to and hunted with the most successful Idaho lion hunter of the 20th century, *** *****, for a few years. During the 18 years I lived in what is now the Frank Church Wilderness I examined a fair number of cougar kills and, in those I examined closely on snow, I determined the lion always dragged the carcass at least a short distance once it killed or paralyzed the animal, and often – but not always – covered it. If the kill was not concealed by brush and/or trees and also covered by leaves, needles or other debris as in your photo, it was quickly discovered by magpies, ravens or eagles. The photo you provided might indicate a typical mountain lion kill.
So I have at least stirred up the idea in you that mountain lions might be around in a few places in Maine. What effect will this mountain lion have on the whitetail deer population within its territory? Under “normal” circumstances, probably none that would get noticed by the average hunter/outdoorsman. But what if the deer herd began shrinking because of winter kill, loss of habitat, etc.?
In the spring edition of North American Whitetail Magazine, 2010, Volume 28, Number 2, there is an article in there by Dr. James C. Kroll. He writes,
Although many state wildlife agencies still won’t admit they have lions, the public is now well aware they exist in a number of places. And, they can have a real impact on whitetails. In general, a male lion will eat one deer per week, while a female with young will eat two deer per week. The hidden blessing is that lions tend to have very large home ranges, and they therefore don’t defend their territories as vigorously as wolves or bears do.
If the mountain lion was ranging over territory that comprise whitetail deer populations that were healthy in numbers, let’s say 20 or more deer per square mile, I doubt any of us would ever much notice the deer the lion took out. Dare I say, we probably would not know the lion existed. But what if this lion was now living in the same territory where the population of deer has been reduced to 2, 3 or 4 deer per square mile. Being a good hunter, a hungry lion can finish off what remains of a deer herd within its territory, if it’s eating a deer or two per week. If the lion doesn’t completely wipe it out, it certainly can hamper the rebuilding effort or make it difficult to sustain a herd.
So now we are looking at a real predator problem, well, that is if one wants to maintain a deer herd. Where once the lion would go unnoticed, now hunters want to know where the deer all went. Predators do have an effect on whitetail deer numbers and under Maine’s circumstances one mountain lion ranging about an area with a drastically reduced deer herd, can finish it off. It’s now a problem. So, why not admit it?
Managing deer in Northern Maine, as well as parts of Downeast and the mountains in the west, is a challenge simply because geographically, these areas sit on the outer fringes of whitetail deer range. There will always be severe winters here and there and as my friend said, those bad winters show up the weaknesses in the deer management plan. If Maine wants to keep a deer herd in these areas, it best be plugging up some of these holes so that the severe winters, when they hit, won’t have such a devastating effect on the herd.
We can start by admitting that predators do have an impact on deer herds. How much we notice depends on certain conditions, some of which we are witness to now. We need to more closely monitor and manage predator numbers of bear, coyote, bobcats, as well as reduce competition for food and habitat between deer and moose.
None of this will be easy but a repeated denial that predators matter, isn’t going to cut it anymore.