Sir Winston Churchill, paraphrasing Spanish philosopher George Santayana, famously said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” With that in mind, I’ve been taking a look back over the last decade and taking stock of where we were and how far we’ve come in managing some of our wildlife populations.

Last week I started with wild turkeys. This week we look at Maine’s, and the country’s, No. 1 big game animal – the white-tailed deer.

Maine’s 2018 deer season was touted as a great success, based on an estimated kill of 30,299 deer. The claim of success is understandable considering that the state’s deer kill has hovered closer to 20,000 for the better part of the last decade. But take a broader perspective and that perception changes.

Ten years ago, in this very column, I noted that perpetual suggestions on ways to improve Maine deer hunting and management – both whimsical and practical – had repeatedly failed, largely because of strong resistance to change on the part of both hunters and wildlife managers. The state’s deer herd was, at that time, in poor enough shape that I thought (hoped) 2008 might finally be the year our agency personnel would consider some significant changes.

How bad was it? In an average year, only one out of 10 hunters succeeded in taking any deer – buck or doe. That’s abysmal, considering the nationwide average is three to four times that. In 2007, Maine hunters killed only 28,884 deer, a huge decline from the 38,153 deer taken in 2002, but only 2,000 fewer than were taken in 2018. So do 2,000 deer really define the difference between success and failure?

Several factors contributed to this declivity – principally, lack of protection for winter habitat, a steady increase in predator (coyote) populations and several severe winters. The situation became bad enough that, with much pomp and circumstance, the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife announced Maine’s Game Plan for Deer in 2011. Unfortunately, that amounted to little more than integrating existing management plans into a single document. Even worse, few of the plan’s objectives have been accomplished.

In fairness, the state can do little to protect deer wintering areas on private property. Efforts at cooperative agreements were greeted by sportsmen with the skepticism of the fox guarding the henhouse, and have fallen far short of expectations. We can’t control the weather, either, and unfortunately we experienced consecutive bad winters in 2008 and 2009.

That leaves us with predators, one area where the game plan actually gave reason for optimism. But predator control is a contentious issue. It’s difficult to manage for one species of wildlife over another without compelling justification. I think the economic benefit deer represent to our state provides it.

But how effective are coyote control programs? Most contemporary research indicates these efforts are largely ineffective at reducing coyote populations; some research even suggests such efforts may have the opposite effect. Locally concentrated efforts have, however, demonstrated some encouraging results, at least in getting deer in a particular wintering area through a single winter. But those efforts have been hampered for some two decades by the listing under the Endangered Species Act of lynx as threatened. Efforts should be made to reduce their mortality, but in my opinion it is biologically irresponsible to afford excessive protection to a species at the fringe of its normal range. Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to de-list the species.

Is there reason for optimism? Notably higher hunter success rates over the last several seasons offer good news – or do they? The 2008 kill of 28,884 deer represented a 10 percent success rate, which means just under 300,000 licensed hunters. By 2012 the number of licensed hunters had dropped to around 201,000, and in 2018 their numbers were estimated at just over 163,000. Even at that, it’s still only an 18 percent success rate, which is nothing to brag about. Meanwhile, hunter numbers – and their dollars – continue to dwindle as a direct result of the declining deer herd.

Have we turned a corner toward better deer hunting in Maine? I’d like to think so, but remain skeptical. Without more protection of critical winter habitat and increased effort against deer predators, not much will change in northern and eastern Maine. The strength of Maine’s deer resource now lies in southern and central Maine, where management plans call for more hunting in the short term to lead to further reductions in deer numbers in the long term.

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

[email protected]

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