Hal Blood recalls how he used to snowmobile at the north end of Moosehead Lake and see deer by the thousands. Now he sees only a few hundred.

And where Blood, a registered Maine Guide, ice fishes on state conservation land near Jackman at the northwestern corner of Maine, the deer are simply gone, he said.

“I used to see deer lying up in the ridges. That whole Moose River valley 25 years ago was unbelievable. But there aren’t any deer there any more,” Blood said.

Northern Maine was once a haven for deer hunters, but decades-long efforts to revitalize the region’s deer herd have failed to produce the results biologists envisioned. Now there is significant doubt about whether the herd will ever return to historical levels – and concern that the state’s efforts to do so are simply too costly.

After the severity of this past winter, state deer biologist Kyle Ravana said the state will give out up to 10,000 fewer any-deer permits – which allow hunters to shoot does – for this fall’s hunt. But no any-deer permits have been issued in northern Maine for the past decade. And despite the state limiting hunting up north to “bucks only,” the herd there still has not rebounded.

In fact, since the state started estimating the statewide deer population in 1955, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has never come close to its goal, set in 1986, to grow the herd to between 250,000 and 330,000 statewide.

“The fact of the matter is, the population up there is not what it was historically. It’s something we continue to wrestle with, and we’ll continue with as we move forward,” Ravana said.

And after the department received $200,000 for a coyote-control program that has paid hunters to kill coyotes the past two years, the question at hand may be: Is it worth it?

“The thing in the back of my mind is that as the severe winters really knock the deer, you can only do so much, especially if there are a series of severe winters. It’s like spitting into the wind,” said George Matula, a former 30-year state wildlife biologist who is now a Unity College associate professor of biology.

Weather indeed has been a major problem. The whitetail deer herd in northern Maine was decimated by the back-to-back severe winters of 2008 and 2009, among the harshest on record.

Other problems for the northern Maine herd are forest-cutting practices that remove winter cover for deer, and the coyote population that preys on deer, particularly in areas with deep snow.

The prevalence of these problems in northern Maine has meant whitetails there have struggled far more than those to the south.

Hunters, guides, sportsmen and everyday Mainers in northern Maine want the deer herd up north to rebound. And other outdoor groups, along with the department, have spent money and time to help the herd rebound there.

But despite the efforts, the northern Maine deer herd simply can’t do well in a severe winter, Ravana said. So maybe the time has come to ask whether the state should give up on the whitetail herd in northern Maine.

“I remember one old-time (state biologist) told me his theory was we should manage moose in northern Maine and not worry about the deer, that it was against the odds,” Matula said. “That was his thought. Some others feel that way. I probably lean that way, too.”

MAINE’S WHITETAIL HERD

The department has not given a year-to-year statewide deer population estimate since 2003. However, from 1955 until 2003 the population estimate most years was around 200,000. The long-term average is 215,000, Ravana said. Moreover, only for three years – 1998 to 2000 – did it come close to the department’s 1986 goal of more than 270,000, according to state wildlife reports.

That goal attempted to balance deer viewing and hunting opportunities against available habitat and road safety, according to the state.

Today, Ravana said, the long-term goal in northern Maine – in Wildlife Management Districts 1 through 11 – is to grow the herd to 10 deer per square mile. He said he doesn’t know what the density is now, but it’s not that high.

In southern and central Maine, state biologists can increase the size of the deer herd by limiting the number of any-deer permits issued. But in northern Maine, where doe hunting has been prohibited for years, that’s not possible.

“In northern, western and eastern Maine, it’s always been a real challenge,” Ravana said. “We are limited by habitat that’s been degraded over time due to land-managing practices, as well as severe winters.”

So will the department ever achieve its goal of 10 deer per square mile in northern Maine?

“It’s a difficult question to answer. I hope so,” Ravana said.

Even in the rest of Maine, the number of any-deer permits issued is half what it was 15 years ago. In the past five years the state has issued fewer than 50,000 any-deer permits annually – far less than the 76,000 handed out in 2004.

Yet hunting-license sales in Maine have remained steady. Since 1988, there have been 203,000 to 220,000 hunting licenses sold annually in Maine.

But long-time deer guides like Blood in Jackman say the whitetail herd has shifted from north to south since then, and that trend appears irreversible.

“When they started cutting deer yards, they pretty much wiped out the deer herd in northern Maine. Meanwhile the deer herd in southern Maine has increased quite a bit,” said Blood, a Master Maine Guide for 25 years.

“I grew up around Portland and all in that country, back then, it was a big deal if you saw a deer. Now in southern Maine they’re running around Portland like rats. And they need a special season to get rid of them.”

WHAT’S BEING DONE

Yet never before has so much been done for deer in northern Maine by the department or sportsmen.

From Aroostook to Oxford counties and along the coast in central Maine, state biologists and hunters are planting food plots, shooting coyotes and raising funds to improve Maine’s deer herd.

The past two years the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife spent roughly $120,000 on the coyote-killing program, said Ryan Robicheau, the state’s wildlife management section supervisor. Another $80,000 remains in the program, which was funded by a $150,000 legislative appropriation and department funds, Robicheau said.

Last winter, $63,668 was paid to hunters who killed 541 coyotes. This winter, the department so far has paid $45,189 to hunters who killed 242 coyotes in remote areas, Robicheau said.

“In general, any kind of pressure is going to be good, even if the hunters are not successful in shooting coyotes,” Robicheau said. “A coyote is pretty smart, and it will shift its pattern. It’s a disruption of its normal routine.”

Robicheau said the state’s efforts to help deer are working.

“It’s my understanding that unless removed from the state budget the (coyote) program will continue,” Robicheau noted.

But David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said a new state policy that requires deer yards to receive more Land For Maine’s Future funds could do more. Although, he added, it could take up to 10 years to see results.

The Sportsman’s Alliance is working with companies such as Central Maine Power to encourage the planting of food plots for deer. And Trahan said that could have a domino effect if the idea spreads across northern Maine.

Elsewhere, such as in Rangeley at the Rangeley Region Guides Association and in Aroostook County at the Aroostook County Conservation Association, sportsmen are already planting food plots filled with clover to help deer survive the winter.

“In one winter in 2008 to 2009, there were 80 deer carcasses in Ashland. They just starved to death,” said Jerry McLaughlin, the founder and director of the Aroostook County association, which has 100 members.

But Blood, the Jackman deer guide, said all of these efforts, even the newly prioritized Land For Maine’s Future funds, may be too little too late.

“Quite frankly, they should have been doing that 20 or even 10 years ago,” Blood said.

WILL IT WORK?

McLaughlin believes if the Aroostook association stopped feeding whitetail deer, the herd in northern Maine would die off.

“I’d like to think the statewide herd will make 300,000, but common sense says it won’t. It hasn’t in 30 years,” McLaughlin said. “If we didn’t do supplemental feeding the deer up here would go extinct.”

Trahan, on the other hand, said the Land for Maine’s Future funds are the northern herd’s best hope. And he remains hopeful.

“That has the potential to make a big difference long term. That triggers federal grants that can mean as much as $5 million to $6 million to protect large deer wintering areas,” Trahan said. “I just don’t want to go backwards.”

But George Smith, the former Sportsman’s Alliance director, thinks the future looks bleak for deer in northern Maine.

“The state’s coyotes-killing program is ridiculously expensive. It’s not sustainable,” said Smith, a deer hunter of 53 years.

“In northern Maine in the future there will be pockets of deer closer to the towns. But within the big woods, where people like to hunt deer, it will be hit or miss. Deer hunting will move to central and southern Maine, which is not very good for the industry.”

And Matula, the former state biologist who helped introduce the any-deer permit system in 1986, is not betting on Maine’s deer

“I’ll probably get myself in trouble for saying this. But why put a lot of money into managing for them in an area that’s tough on the deer?” Matula said. “Physiologically, the deer can’t make it. The odds are stacked against them.”

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at:

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