Hunter Alex Wall had a name for an apple tree on his 100-acre property in Belgrade.

“I used to call this particular tree the ‘Deer McDonald’s’ because so many deer would show up to eat,” Wall said.

The name no longer fits, however.

“In years past, you’d see nothing on the ground, and now there are quite a few apples on the ground under the trees,” Wall said.

The implication is there are fewer deer in the area.

Wall’s anecdote is bolstered by the findings of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Lee Kantar, state deer and moose biologist, said deer numbers are down statewide.

Rifle season begins today for Maine residents, and on Monday for non-residents. To cope with lower deer numbers, the state has issued fewer deer permits to hunters this year.

A lot fewer.

“Are you sitting down?” asked Kantar. “We issued 22,435 permits, which is a 46 percent decrease in 2011.”

In 2010, Maine issued 48,825 permits. In 2009, the state issued 43,385.

In Zone 23 — the hunting management region that encompasses the Augusta area — the number of permits echoes the statewide trend.

This year, 3,320 permits were issued in Zone 23, down from 7,800 in 2010 and 7,900 in 2009, Kantar said.

“This year we’ve reduced our amount of any-deer permits pretty severely in order to ensure we’re meeting our population objectives,” he said. “When you manage a species, you need to have a plan in place and you need to do things consistently over time.

“We have a management system for deer, and a methodology for allocating those permits that we do every year based on new data that comes in.”

The data, Kantar said, comes from aerial surveys of deer, harvest numbers from previous hunts and the severity of previous winters.

“If you’re not at your population objective, and you’re below it, you want to build the deer numbers in that district. And therefore, you’re going to reduce the number of any-deer permits,” he said.

The major factor for the decline in population can be traced back to the winters of 2008 and 2009, Kantar said.

“Those two consecutive winters were two of the worst winters we’ve had in 60 years,” he said. “It put quite a damper on the deer population.”

The severity of winter is based on two factors.

“Snow depth, and how long that snow stays on the ground,” Kantar said. “When it snows — and, for deer it doesn’t need to be a lot — it starts to put an energy squeeze on them. So, if you’re talking 12 to 14 inches of snow, it starts to really tax deer.

“If that lasts more than three months, you’re going to start losing your fawn crop. And your fawn crop is going to be your yearlings in the harvest for next year, and that makes up about 50 percent of the buck harvest.”

According to more than 60 years of data maintained by the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, 2008 and 2009 are the third- and ninth-worst winters, respectively.

Kantar added that the first- and second-worst winters over the past 60 years didn’t have the same impact on the deer population, because Maine had better wintering habitat for deer during those years, particularly in northern areas.

“We had a tremendously bad winter in 1971,” Kantar said. “But, in ’71, we had a huge amount of wintering area — winter cover — across the state of Maine, and especially in the north, where it really counts.”

Kantar said optimum wintering habitats for deer are old-growth forests, which are increasingly scarce throughout Maine due to forestry.

“This is just the way it is — the economics of forestry,” he said. “I don’t like to paint this as ‘the forest industry is bad.’ That’s not what this is about.”

Kantar said he understands why wooded areas — in both forest operations and small wood lots — are being harvested in a manner that is out of sync with managing deer populations.

“These people don’t get paid money to maintain deer wintering areas over time,” he said. “Deer wintering areas need to grow to be 80 to 100 years in age to produce good wintering habitat, and there’s no compensation for that, and this is a big, huge issue for deer in Maine.

“So, people manage wood lots — as they should — on a much shorter rotation than 80 to 100 years, so it’s a problem for deer. It’s the problem of trying to manage a public resource, which is deer, on private lands owned by individuals. And that’s neither good nor bad. It’s just reality.”

Hunter Albert Poudrier said his luck has declined in recent years.

“It’s strange,” he said. “I had a streak where I got deer 34 years in a row … but the last two years I didn’t get one.”

“I haven’t had venison in two years.”

Poudrier’s sudden change of fortune isn’t due to declining deer numbers, he said. Rather, he hasn’t been able to get any-deer permits during those hunts.

This year, however, Poudrier has been issued an any-deer permit, and feels optimistic. He said he hasn’t noticed any decline in deer population on his property in Mercer. Quite the contrary, he said.

“I worry about too many deer, and that’s why I don’t mind taking does,” he said.

Hunter Henry Chapman of Washington said his observations are more in line with the state. Every year, Chapman hunts with a friend at a camp in Kingsbury.

“When I first started hunting up there about 10 years ago, we did see some deer. Not many, but some,” he said. “And, every year it got less and less.”

Chapman said he hasn’t lost all hope for this year.

“Maybe a stray deer will get lost and wander into the area that we hunt,” he joked.

Kantar had one word to describe the projected harvest for 2011.

“Low,” he said. “When you add everything up, we think we’re going fall below 17,00 deer statewide this year.”

In 2010, the statewide harvest was 20,063. In 2009, the harvest was 18,092.

But, a low harvest for 2011 would indicate that the permitting system is working, Kantar said.

“This harvest is going to look low to a lot of people, but it’s being done by design,” he said. “We need to make sure we have a lot of adult does that can continue to produce young.”

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