by Tom Seymour
Say “hunting” to anyone in Maine and the image of an antlered whitetailed deer instantly comes to mind. This, despite an abundance of other big game and small-game species.
Moose, black bear, grouse, woodcock, hares and ducks all take second place to deer. But were deer always abundant enough to elicit such avid devotion? Hardly.
The history of whitetailed deer in Maine is one of both scarcity and plenty. Natural and human-induced changes to Maine’s geography have greatly influenced deer numbers over the last 400 or so years. Mammalian predation, too, has always had some degree of influence on deer numbers in Maine. Also, habitat was always key to deer survival in Maine. That fact remains so today, perhaps even more so. This we will discuss later.
Wolves, until their numbers dwindled in the early 19th century, numbered among the most efficient of deer predators. While black bear, bobcat, eastern cougar (at least in the early days) and lynx took their toll, none killed more deer than wolves. Their habit of cooperating with each other by hunting in packs accounted for their great efficiency as deer predators. And today a new canid prowls the length and breadth of Maine. Eastern coyotes now number among the most lethal of deer predators.
One other factor figures prominently into the natural history of whitetailed deer in Maine. The Pine Tree State sits precariously near the northern end of the whitetailed deer’s range. In fact, the south side of the St. Lawrence Seaway marks the northernmost extent of the whitetail’s range.
Any species, fish, plant or mammal, when found at an extreme limit of its range, is always subject to population fluctuations. This holds true for deer, and in spades.
With the exception of the coastal corridor, the vast northern forest covered most of Maine prior to and at the time of the first European settlement. Deer need edge habitat and openings in the forest in order to find sufficient forage. The big woods harbored few whitetails.
Of course fire, insect damage and even beavers, by flooding upland areas, accounted for many natural openings in the pre-colonial forest. Here, various grasses, herbaceous perennials, biennials and also shrub growth, provided deer forage. But all the same, the greater number of whitetailed deer lived in coastal regions and also, along the various rivers that entered the sea from further inland.
Native Americans, most of whom lived in the milder regions along the coast, certainly took advantage of Maine’s deer population. But with a probable maximum population of only 3,000 or less, Maine’s aboriginal inhabitants probably had but little effect upon deer numbers.
As colonist’s numbers grew and farms began dotting the landscape, the environment became more favorable to deer because of the now-fertile openings in the dense woods. But eventually, the number of farms increased to the point that little woodland habitat remained and extensive clearcutting saw to it that deer could find no shelter areas.
Add to this a policy of killing deer whenever and wherever they were found and the future for whitetailed deer in Maine appeared bleak indeed. These factors combined to force remaining deer into interior and northern regions. And while wolves were mostly killed off in settled areas, they abounded in the rest of the state.
An 1883 law prohibited the export of deer meat from Maine. This effectively legislated market hunting for deer out of existence. The Victorian fad of stuffing and mounting deer heads was a boon to taxidermy. MHPC Photo
Fast-forwarding to the mid-nineteenth century, we see market hunting for not only deer but also just about every form of wild game, becoming a factor in deer numbers. Clearly, if whitetailed deer were to survive in the State of Maine, something had to change. And it did. In 1830, the first deer-hunting season was established. This allowed hunting deer only from September 1 through December 31. At that, the law still had not prescribed any bag limits. Anyone hunting from September through December could shoot as many deer as they wished.
While the dates allotted for hunting deer went through a regular series of reductions, it wasn’t until 1873 that the first bag limit was enacted. This allowed for a take of three deer per person per year.
Then in 1883, the law prohibited the export of deer meat from Maine. This effectively legislated market hunting for deer out of existence. In 1893, deer had become so scarce in southern counties that deer hunting was prohibited altogether in eight counties. Finally, in 1903, the effect of the closure in southern Maine having had a positive effect, hunting was opened in all Maine counties.
From then to the present time, deer management became a true science and biologist now micro-manage individual districts. By regulating the antlerless deer take, numbers in areas of low deer numbers can at a minimum, remain constant. And of course, the hope is always to increase deer numbers to somewhere near a predetermined, optimum number.
Different areas in Maine have varying abilities to hold deer. Thus the carrying capacity, as it is called, figures into management goals. Neither too few nor too many deer are acceptable, but getting it just right takes effort and most of all, time.
Also bear in mind that today, in addition to the historic factors that influence deer numbers in Maine, new considerations enter the picture. These are enumerated in the Maine Department Of Inland Fisheries And Wildlife (DIF&W) new management plan released on March 17, 2011, called Maine’s Game Plan For Deer. They include such things as severe winters, loss of quality habitat and deer yards, poaching, vehicle collisions and winter feeding.
Commissioner of DIF&W Chandler Woodcock said, “We can’t control Maine winters. But we can work together on reducing all the dangers to the herd.” And in the Game Plan For Deer, DIF&W outlines the current situation (low deer numbers in northern, western and eastern Maine) and outlines ways in which DIF&W will address the problem.
This plan begins by talking about the importance of deer hunting in Maine. In addition to hunting, non-consumptive uses of our whitetailed deer resource figure prominently into the state’s income flow. Eco-tourism has become big business and this has far-reaching influences.
Consider this. People visit Maine to not only view, but also to photograph deer and other wildlife species in their natural environment. This often entails hiring Registered Maine Guides for wildlife tours. Additionally, eco-tourism brings dollars to the lodging and restaurant industry, along with many other spin-off industries. Deer, no matter how they are viewed, are big business in Maine.
While a scarcity of deer in some of their traditional haunts has prompted considerable concern, an abundance of the animals in other places causes an entirely different set of problems. Deer host deer ticks and deer ticks carry Lyme disease, a terrible, debilitating illness that if undiagnosed and left unchecked, can make people’s lives miserable.
Maine’s offshore islands serve as an example of too many deer causing problems for the human population. Islesboro, for example, has far too many deer. The animals have exceeded the “carrying capacity” discussed earlier. And so Lyme disease is a constant menace to those living on the island as well as to the island’s visitors.
In some parts of southern Maine, newly-established communities suffer deer damage to expensive shrubbery and other landscaping plants. Deer have found such places to their liking, as well they might. Here, they enjoy a lack of predators, sufficient shelter in the form of nearby woods and other dedicated natural areas and an abundant supply of food in the form of not only wild plants, but also flower and vegetable gardens.
Also, deer/vehicle collisions present a new and persistent danger in areas where deer have become too abundant. Consider, too, that in many areas of high human concentration, traditional hunting with rifles is prohibited for safety reasons. This only allows deer to become more numerous, which in turn threatens the health of the herd. Deer numbers cannot, for any length of time and without suffering disease or famine, exceed the carrying capacity of the land.
The DIF&W deer management plan, available online by visiting the DIF&W website at www.mefishwildlife.com puts everything into an easily-understandable perspective. Hopefully, the measures enumerated there will have the desired effect. We can only hope, wait and see.
One thing is for sure, though. Deer are vitally important to not only Maine’s economy but also to the quality and type of life that Mainer’s enjoy. Deer numbers have risen and fallen over the years, according to whatever circumstances they faced. That ebb and flow will probably continue.