Another Maine winter has set in, and sportsmen and wildlife managers alike hold their collective breath waiting to see how it will affect our deer herd. So far, winter conditions have been relatively mild, and despite a poor mast crop, there is hope the deer may come out of it OK. But a mild winter alone may not be enough.

Three major factors stand out as key obstacles to deer management in the Northeast. They include winter severity, predation and habitat quality.

Much of what we’re experiencing now in terms of low deer numbers can be tied back to the winter of 2007-08, one of the worst on record. Biologists use deer harvest as an index to the population, and 2008 harvests dropped considerably throughout the Northeast, falling as much as 60 percent in parts of New Brunswick, 46 percent in Quebec, and nearly 50 percent in northern Maine and New Hampshire, suggesting these areas may have lost as much as half of their deer herd.

White-tailed deer are a fairly fecund species, and populations have the ability to rebound from such devastating losses fairly quickly in the absence of other mitigating factors.

But that ability is confounded when you add things like predation. According to a 1995 IFW report, coyotes accounted for nearly 30 percent of annual deer mortality in Maine — equal to the legal harvest. Now we have more coyotes and fewer deer, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that percentage is larger, possibly much larger.

It’s not just coyotes that deer must contend with. The New Brunswick Department of Natural Resources conducted two studies, in 1996-98 and 2006-07, where they found coyote predation accounted for approximately 40 percent of fawn mortality, with black bears accounting for roughly another 25 percent. This research complimented studies in other areas (like Pennsylvania) that showed black bears are a significant contributor.

And that’s just fawn mortality, which the New Brunswick research showed remained relatively constant throughout the summer and fall. Add winter mortality on both young and adults, and the picture becomes bleaker.

Healthy deer populations can withstand a certain level of predation, provided there is sufficient quality winter habitat. But we’re sorely lacking that as well. Lee Kantar, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer and moose biologist, cited several factors for the decline in winter habitat, including a spruce budworm outbreak, loss of agricultural lands, and modern forestry practices such as mechanization and more extensive road networks. He also noted the challenge of trying to manage a public resource on predominantly private land, which is further exacerbated by changing ownerships and policies.

The state has tried to address this in part by developing cooperative agreements with private landowners to manage deer wintering areas. This management is directed primarily at protecting winter cover. But a New Brunswick deer biologist, Rod Cumberland, observed that destruction of winter food through post-cut chemical (spraying) harwood suppression may be of equal or greater importance.

Clearly, many challenges lie ahead if we want to restore what could arguably be considered our most important wildlife resource. Our department, as well as those in neighboring states and provinces, are exhausting their limited resources to find and implement solutions. There is hope, and a mild winter will help in what will almost certainly be a long, uphill climb. If that’s not enough to assuage your trepidations, you can take some solace in the fact that we are not alone. Perhaps a regional approach will generate solutions we can’t accomplish on our own.

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