In previous columns I have discussed predators and habitat. This week we’re going to look at yet another factor influencing the health of our deer herd, or lack thereof: poaching.

We really don’t know how much of an impact it has on Maine’s deer population, but some sources estimate deer mortality from illegal kills to be equivalent to that from legal hunting. Let that sink in for a moment, and while you’re cogitating let me add some numbers.

Maine’s deer herd is estimated at around 300,000, give or take. Hunters take around 20,000 a year. The last official estimate by MDIFW placed the impact of coyotes alone as nearly equal to that. I contend it’s much higher. And that doesn’t include bear predation, which could be significant; we just don’t know. But to keep the critics in check, we’ll subtract another 20,000.

Again, we don’t have a good handle on poaching mortality, but it’s not unreasonable to assume, and several reputable sources have, that it’s equivalent to the legal take.

Right there we’ve removed 60,000 deer, or 20 percent of the population.

Allow me to digress for a moment. Car-deer collisions are seldom included in mortality estimates and when they are, the figures only include those that are reported to law enforcement and insurance agencies. According to my sources at the Maine Department of Transportation and the Cumberland County Sheriff’s office, that’s likely only a fraction of the actual mortality because most collisions are unreported. We also sometimes fail to include legal mortality from depredation permits and special hunts, which is higher than you might think.

The idea that poachers take as many deer as hunters is sobering and angering. I’d like to think, or at least hope that’s not the case, but when you consider all the possibilities it does make one wonder.

The expanded archery season was intended to reduce deer numbers in areas where firearms hunting is prohibited or impractical. Unfortunately there are some who feel compelled to cheat the system. Nobody knows to what extent it occurs, but complaints are widespread about folks who shoot deer outside the expanded archery zones – where there is a one deer a year limit – then tag them as having been shot in the zones. That’s poaching.

There are the folks who, rather than put in the required effort to actually hunt, will conduct a “little push” or a “maneuver.” According to the law, any effort to move deer involving more than three people is illegal. That’s poaching.

Those not in the know may scratch their heads when they hear yokels, who call themselves hunters but fall short in several requirements, refer to pineapple trees in Maine. Tossing a bushel of apples under a pine tree to attract deer might seem fairly innocuous to some, but it’s poaching.

Then there are those who blatantly disregard the law. They kill deer at night. They kill deer out of season. They kill deer on land where hunting is prohibited. They bait. They drive. They fail to tag and register deer they’ve killed so they can continue hunting. They party hunt. They get others to tag deer they have killed. The list goes on. If you’re an ethical hunter or you merely enjoy watching deer, they’re stealing from you. They’re stealing an opportunity from the legal hunter and they’re stealing your property from every citizen.

Average success rates for Maine deer hunters run about 10 percent – abysmal when compared to the national level. Somehow we’ve gotten used to it. But consider that number could nearly double in the absence of poaching.

As far as problems affecting Maine’s deer herd, this one might actually be the easiest to solve, in theory, but not so in practice. Enforcement is key and the Maine Warden Service does its best, given its financial and logistical limitations. If we want the Service to do a better job, we need to give it the required resources: tools, manpower and money. But just like protecting habitat, some of the responsibility falls on our own shoulders. We hunters need to police our own ranks.

That could mean calling the state’s poaching hotline at 1-800-ALERT-US to report a violation. The Maine Warden Service recommends that you not confront a poacher. Instead be a good witness. Document as much information as you can and pass it along to the proper authorities.

It could mean having the courage to call out a friend, family member or other hunting companion when you catch them skirting the rules. If you grew up in a family that drives deer or party hunts you were probably taught it’s an acceptable practice. It’s not. You’re stealing from your neighbors.

And it definitely means setting the right example for the next generation of hunters. Education is often a wildlife manager’s most valuable tool. By teaching young hunters right and wrong we can improve the hunting experience for them and us, increase our deer population and give the general public a better impression of hunting.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]