When I was a wide-eyed wildlife biology student, my professors used to say that wildlife management is people management.

“You may want to spend your career out in the woods working with wild creatures, but in order to accomplish anything you’re ultimately going to have to deal with the public.” That includes anyone and everyone with an interest in wildlife, and just might be the most important variable with regard to the health of our deer herd.

Clearly we need to grow the herd in northern and Downeast Maine. The biggest obstacles toward that end are winter severity, which we have no control over; predators, which we have limited control over; and habitat, which we simply fail to do enough about. Wildlife managers have limited or eliminated the harvest of antlerless deer, but the herd is still not growing, at least not as quickly as we would like.

Central and southern Maine are a different story. There the deer herd is much healthier. In fact we’re sometimes told we have too many deer down south. That’s a matter of perspective.

Biologists use the term carrying capacity (typically denoted as “K”) to describe how many individuals of a certain species a particular area can support without undue harm to the animals or their habitat. In very simplistic terms the objective of a responsible manager is to keep that population at or somewhere below carrying capacity. When it comes to a renewable, harvestable resource like deer, that is accomplished largely through application of the most important tool in the wildlife manager’s kit: the hunter.

The goal is to keep populations in balance with their habitat while also ensuring there is a sustained yield. It’s a bit complicated and sometimes difficult to explain why, but a maximum sustained yield is best accomplished by maintaining the population at around 50 percent of K – half what the land safely can support.

Maximum sustained yield is difficult to accomplish, and not necessarily the most desirable option from a sportsman’s perspective. Many hunters aren’t particularly choosy about what they shoot, they just want as many deer on the land as it can safely support, giving them more sightings and higher success rates. For them a more preferable alternative is something called optimum sustained yield, a sort of middle ground that maximizes both deer harvest and hunter satisfaction. It is accomplished with the herd at about 60-70 percent of K.

However, wildlife managers also must take into account the nonhunting public. Deer eat ornamental shrubs, cash crops and forest regeneration that could otherwise become marketable timber. They run into automobiles and carry the ticks that act as a host for Lyme disease, among other maladies.

For these reasons and others, there are a lot of nonhunters who would just as soon see even fewer deer on the land. And they convinced their legislators to direct our wildlife managers toward a different objective, called cultural or social carrying capacity – what the general public will tolerate. The numbers are a little less precise but it’s well below the 50 percent of K objective for maximum sustained yield. As a matter of fact, we could double the current size of the deer herd in central and southern Maine with no detriment whatsoever to the environment or the deer population. As a result, we could also double the annual deer kill in these areas. Let that sink in for a minute.

Meanwhile, not all hunters want to kill a lot of deer, or just any deer. Nationwide, increasingly more hunters would prefer that deer herds have more natural and well-balanced age structure and sex ratios. And they want to see more bucks able to take maximum advantage of habitat and best realize their genetic growth potential by reaching older ages. This strategy is called quality deer management, the three main principles of which are ensuring quality habitat, removing a sufficient number of female deer and reducing the harvest of yearling bucks.

I believe, for the most part, our biologists do a commendable job when it comes to managing wildlife resources. But it’s a difficult and sometimes thankless task, given financial and logistical constraints, the bureaucracy they must wade through, and pressure from supervisors, legislators, lobbyists and special interest groups. Even within the hunting community, there’s sometimes disagreement over how to best manage our deer herd. It’s a balancing act, and the more time and energy biologists must devote to managing people, the less they can direct toward our wildlife resources.

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

[email protected]

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