Harpswell Naturalist: Too many deer?

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One of the joys of writing about nature is hearing from readers who share stories or ask questions about a species of interest. The most common topic is the white-tailed deer, a familiar creature around Harpswell. In the last few years, as their population has climbed, attitudes regarding deer have been in flux.

Many of us grew up with the Walt Disney movie “Bambi,” which portrayed deer as gentle, benign creatures who suffer greatly at the hand of mankind. There was good reason for that belief in the early 1900s, because we had exploited the deer herd in America, reducing it to fewer than 500,000. Thanks to regulated hunting seasons and the conversion of farmland to suburbia, the deer herd is now estimated at 34 million and growing. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife puts the population in Maine at 320,000.

Northern Maine long had a reputation for producing reliable harvests of big deer, the heaviest on record topping the scales at more than 400 pounds. But as marginal farmland reverted to forest, the deer population dropped. It is still declining, partly due to changes in timber harvesting.

In southern Maine it is a different story, as deer have readily adapted to living among suburban developments and hunting access is increasingly restricted. Global warming is a contributor, as recent mild winters resulted in higher survival rates and birth rates are rising. A healthy doe may produce up to 25 fawns during her lifetime.

In summer and autumn, deer prosper on vegetation, fungi and fruit. Deer readily adapt to winter conditions by eating a diet heavy on browse, the new growth of trees and shrubs. Some well-meaning people resort to winter feeding of deer in the mistaken belief that this helps deer survive. Not only does this concentrate deer near feeding sites, it may draw in predators like coyotes and it increases the risk of landscaping damage and road accidents. The availability of winter foods like cracked corn can harm a deer’s digestive tract. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife is now concerned about the spread of chronic wasting disease. Please note that Maine legislation restricts feeding deer between June 1 and Dec. 15, and baiting for hunting or photography is illegal.

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A recent issue has driven significant change in attitudes about deer in Harpswell. The ongoing growth in tick populations has led to rising incidence of tick-borne diseases like Lyme and anaplasmosis. Local resident Russell Turner questioned if we have too many deer because he and his wife, keen gardeners, have been forced to deal with more tick bites and many neighbors have become ill.

Russell is on solid ground here, because deer are significant hosts to both nymph and adult ticks, leading the Maine Medical Center Research Institute to label southern deer populations as a public health hazard. Deer feeding in your yard can drop hundreds of ticks during the year, many of them harboring disease-causing microbes.

While Maine has a long tradition of big-game hunting, and most of the population supports the activity, many newcomers to the state are against hunting, particularly near their homes. As towns like Harpswell gain population, larger blocks of land are split up for home sites, and historic hunting land is lost. Across the country, many communities have wrestled with deer numbers, experimenting with trap-and-transfer programs and even sterilization efforts. After many failures, the consensus is that the only effective way to manage deer populations is via regulated hunting. Locally I have seen a change in recent years as three landowner groups opened their forest areas to a limited number of hunters. Harpswell restricts hunting to archery equipment, shotguns and black-powder weapons.

In answer to Russell’s question, the facts point to local deer populations being in excess. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife estimates that in southern counties like Cumberland, deer densities may reach 40 per square mile, well beyond the carrying capacity of the land. Deer can strip a forest of new growth below 6 feet and eliminate plants that may be endangered. In response, the department introduced a new any-deer harvest plan this year, encouraging hunters to take both bucks and does in our region. Final harvest numbers are not yet available, but it appears the total will exceed 42,000, a new record.

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What can we do? Choose native plants for landscaping, those that deer will not eat. Fence your garden. Suspend deer feeding programs. If you have a few acres, consider allowing access to experienced, responsible hunters who emphasize safety.

Ed Robinson’s latest book, “Nature Notes from Maine Vol. II: Puffins, Black Bears, Raccoons & More,” is available from the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. All profits support HHLT’s conservation and education efforts.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>