I’m reminded of a cartoon clip taken from an old edition of an outdoor magazine that’s nailed firmly to the wall of hunting camp. In the cartoon, two crusty old timers, obviously both have spent their time in the outdoors and have bagged more than their share of game, are reminiscing. Plastered all over the walls of the hunting camp in the cartoon, are so many deer head mounts, you would be hard pressed to find room to put up a 3×5 postcard. One man is speaking to the other and says, “Just ain’t as many deer around here as there used to be!”
Managing herds of whitetail deer in Maine is a chore and that’s an understatement. Not only am I not qualified to do the job, I’m not sure I’d want it because I don’t think I have thick enough skin to take all the heat that comes from hunters, especially when there “just ain’t as many deer around as there used to be.”
It is no secret that Northern Maine has for a long time, perhaps since forever, struggled to keep up a healthy and sustainable whitetail deer herd. On the other extreme within the boundaries of Maine, parts of Southern Maine are experiencing too many deer. There are so many factors that play into this phenomenon, if you will, that I can’t possibly cover it in this one article.
I’ll back up a few years when I was contacted by a concerned hunter from Northern Maine who was concerned about what he called a non-existent deer herd in his part of the state. He was interested in starting a petition drive to see if he could generate enough interest to have the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife shut down the deer hunting season for as long as it took to bring back the deer herd.
I was of course, sympathetic to the concerns but wasn’t convince that was the answer to the problem. I should explain that as a hunter, I am willing to do whatever is necessary to protect and replenish the deer herd. I only require one thing. The science to back it up.
A couple weeks ago now, I caught wind of some grumblings that perhaps Maine had a more serious problem with the deer herd than just the severe winter of 2008-2009. I was sent two charts. One is a chart of the Maine Big Bucks Club, showing from the year 2000 until 2008 the number of big bucks (200-plus pounds) registered with the Club. The second chart is from the Maine Antler & Skull Trophy Club. This shows for the same duration of time the number of trophy antlers registered with MASTC. You can view both of these charts by clicking on the links provided.
Interestingly enough both the Big Buck and the Antler charts seem to be mirror images of one another, both showing a serious decline since 2002. In fairness, while this shows a real decline, none of us really know why. What is real is that we sure can make some speculations. The truth is, looking at these two charts should at least give us to concern.
I sent the two charts to a friend and someone I consider a very valuable resource – Dr. Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of the University of Calgary and a well respected researcher and wildlife expert. His response back confirmed my initial reactions.
There are no simple answers. The graphs you sent are fascinating as they say that as the frequency of heavy bucks drops so does the proportion of trophy bucks, typical or atypical. Right on! Unfortunately, we do not know if the AVERAGE body weight dropped. We cannot say that the bucks are getting smaller, and therefore fewer big fellows are shot. The data, unfortunately, remain mysterious although clearly something interesting is happening!
Hang on to this thought for a moment.
These two charts also fell into the hands of Lee Kantar, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife head deer and moose biologist. I contacted Lee to ask him if he had the charts and could he take some time and talk to me about it.
I will not attempt to cover every aspect of Kantar’s response in this article alone. What I will do is provide you with Kantar’s findings and how they might explain the missing parts that Dr. Geist said were needed.
Here’s what Kantar responded with as it relates to the information in the two charts.
The number of Big Bucks/MASTC bucks etc in the harvest will be a function of the relative size of the herd, the age structure, hunting pressure and annual changes in mortality…for starters. Al Wentworth, who keeps the MASTC data was good enough to provide me with his data back into the 30’s. This is good because he also had the data based on town ( so a lot of ways to begin looking at this).
This seems to be in agreement with Dr. Geist’s brief assessment that it is difficult to make a judgment without data that shows age structure and health of deer. I also emailed with Al Wentworth and even though we might have gotten off to a rocky start, after a couple shots back and forth, why gained a better understanding and more importantly we are both on the same page that his data is something that needs attention and that we need to get to the bottom of it.
Not to get off subject but it was mentioned above about data on deer harvest by town. The MDIFW website has that harvest information if you’re interested.
Kantar explained to me that he opted to review the data provide him by Al Wentworth and break it down by regions, which we all know is a better way to address wildlife management because of the many varying factors. He also looked at the data over the past 70-plus years mostly because of changes in management – Any Deer Permit implementation and deer population goals, etc. As Kantar said, over this length of time there have been an unbelievable number of changes in the state of Maine that have affected our deer herd.
He took the percentage of MASTC bucks harvested to the overall harvest by region. Here’s how he explained it.
So I looked at the percent of MASTC bucks in the harvest each year as a percent of the total buck harvest, then I pooled this information by Regions and by decade, i.e., 80’s, 90’s, 2000’s. OK. To the point. The % of MASTC bucks reported increased in Regions A and B from the 1980’s to today and the % of MASTC bucks reported decreased in Regions F and G from 1980 to today. Downeast was moderate in the 80’s, dropped in the 90’s and came back up in the 2000’s. Moosehead Region was slightly up in 90’s and back down in 2000’s. And western Mts went up in the 90’s and stayed.
The key here is that Kantar is saying that the percentage of MASTC bucks taken compared to the harvest data is a true reflection. In other words, if harvest drops let’s say 10%, the number of MASTC bucks drops 10%…….in theory.
What Kantar is trying to find out is whether or not the deer population is healthy. The charts seem to want to tell us that deer body weight is dropping as well as antler size or it could be telling us that there is a healthy deer herd, there are just simply not enough deer available to harvest, as has been indicated with Kantar’s data research.
Over this time period buck mortality has increased by all causes in each Region, but the hunting mortality part of this probably has not. One thing is clear that as expected with decreased deer populations in the north country from the 80’s to present that means less deer available to harvest.
It seems here that Lee is trying to tell us that his data shows fewer deer to harvest. Does this reduced harvest fall in line with the charts we have that show fewer big bucks and trophy antlers?
If the buck age structures have not shifted dramatically then you have relatively the same buck age structure available for harvest, but less bucks (or for that matter does) available. And with overall lower pop’ns of deer in these regions buck hunting success decreases as well. If you take the 7 regions and chart their changes in overall population from the 80’s to present you will have a mirror image of the changes in big bucks.
It appears that to answer this part of the equation correctly, you have to examine the harvest data, which he says he has, and says that the reduced harvest matches the charts provide by Al Wentworth. I’m not totally convinced it is an exact mirror image of the two but I haven’t examined the data nor am I sure I am qualified to draw any conclusions from doing so.
Now the question becomes, is our deer herd healthy? If the drop in harvest numbers matches the charts and can be supported with Lee Kantar’s data that there are fewer deer to harvest, then we understand at least part of the problem.
If the deer herd is healthy, just small, then we need to work to recover those populations. If the herd is unhealthy, I think it safe to say we got bigger problems than bad winters and too many predators.
In Part II of this report, I’ll take a look at Kantar’s thoughts on herd health, his conclusions and what if anything we can expect on predator control.