Thursday, March 24, 2011

Managing Maine's Declining Deer Herd

Last Thursday (March 17), the state unveiled its Game Plan for Deer, a road map that will hopefully lead to the stabilization of the declining deer herd in northern, eastern and western Maine.  The plan is broken up into five elements:

1.  Wintering areas and winter severity;
2.  Deer population management;
3.  Predation;
4.  Deer planning and public involvement; and
5.  Information and outreach.

These five elements are intended to address the largest factors causing the decline: severe winters; few, low-quality deer wintering areas; predation; and human influences such as illegal hunting, improper winter feeding, vehicle collisions, etc.  There's a lot of information packed into the document's 40 pages, from outlining each problem to describing what has been done thus far to what needs to be done in the future. For instance, I'll take a look at the first element: Deer Wintering Areas and Winter Severity.

Northern Maine has pretty severe winters, even now, which drastically affects deer populations.  (The report notes that three of the most severe winters in the past 60 years occurred in 2001, 2008, and 2009.)  Deer wintering areas, where the snow is shallower and conifers provide cover, are essential to the survival of the species and once covered 900,000 acres in northern, western, and eastern Maine.  The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been conducting surveys of deer wintering areas by both air and ground to determine their current extent.  The Department also conducts "winter severity" surveys, which include snow depths, deer sinking depths, snow characteristics, and temperature.

The report lays out the state's strategies to manage the deer wintering areas, including a set of published management guidelines, zoning by the Land Use Regulation Commission (which, if you'll remember from a previous post, some lawmakers want to abolish), cooperative management agreements, State acquisition of important deer wintering areas, and management programs and workshops.  A few of the specific proposals include:

1.  Ensure adequate wintering area habitat by working with cooperating landowners to implement the Guidelines for Wildlife documents or other management agreements (50% of acreage by 201 and 100% by 2013), and by implementing the Guidelines on all lands owned by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and by the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
2.  Conduct aerial surveys of all lands that have not been surveyed in the past three years where landowners have indicated a desire to cooperatively manage deer; coordinate efforts among private pilots to provide deer observations to the Department; coordinate the Warden Service to report known concentrations of wintering deer; and utilize GIS technology to assist in pulling the information together.
3.  Purchase easements or titles to lands containing deer wintering areas as needed.
4.  Determine which deer concentration areas are simply the result of winter feeding programs, and work with landowners to minimize feeding near roadways or other hazards.

(I'll have to apologize at this point because I haven't had time to write a synopsis of each element of the plan; until I get a chance to, I've provided links to the documents that you can peruse.)

The estimated cost to implement the plan appears to be about $660,000 per year.  Definitely not cheap, but well worth it when you consider that deer hunting alone generated over $200 million in Maine in the late 1990s (page 4 of the Plan).

When it comes down to it, white-tailed deer are at the very northern end of their range up here in Northern Maine.  Anything that upsets the balance is going to have a drastic effect on the population, and we have elements in at least four distinct sectors upsetting that balance.  Even if the plan gets everything right, and even if every plan element is implemented tomorrow, it will take a good amount of time for the population to rebound.

A few other notable documents related to this topic:
The 2007 Resolution to Create an Effective Deer Habitat Enhancement and Coyote Control Program
The 2009 Resolution to Create a Deer Predation Working Group

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