With the snow piling up and temperatures falling precipitously in the other direction, deer headed to their winter yards early again this year. Typically, this annual exodus doesn’t occur until after hunting season. But recent weather fluctuations have driven deer to their winter haunts during the late muzzleloader season with increasing frequency, resulting in what some consider easy pickings.

After hearing rants from several disgruntled sportsmen, who questioned the practice of hunting in a deer yard, I posed the question to the nearly 40,000 members of the Maine Deer Hunters Facebook Group for discussion. Responses were enlightening.

Complaints seemed a bit less widespread and emphatic this year, perhaps because the issue was less severe, or maybe because we’re becoming conditioned to it. Regardless, the theme remained the same. “It’s a killing field up there,” some said of the deer wintering areas in the western mountains region. “Guys are going in and stacking up big bucks,” others said about the yards in Somerset County. More than likely there was a bit of embellishment in their complaints, but something prompted them none the less. They condemned the practice of hunting in a deer yard, but determining right from wrong is often a matter of perspective.

From a wildlife management perspective, it’s less of an issue. A dead deer is a dead deer, regardless of how it dies. Biologists from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife set seasons, bag limits and any-deer permit quotas allowing hunters to remove a certain proportion of the standing deer crop. Their objective is to keep the herd balanced with available habitat in northern and Downeast Maine, and below what the general public will tolerate in central and southern areas. It’s up to the deer hunters, given the constraints of existing regulations, to decide how they go about that task.

It then becomes a question of ethics. Some hunters define ethics by what is legal, and there’s nothing in the law books prohibiting hunting in a deer wintering area. To some, the practice of hunting over bait is deplorable, but it’s legal in many states, like Texas, Kansas and Ohio.

The standard curriculum for nationwide hunter safety classes has a section on ethics. That and other sources describe ethics as what you do when nobody is around to see you. They further elaborate that ethics sometimes means going above what the law allows. A commonly cited example is shooting ducks on the water. It’s legal, but most hunters would agree it’s not very sporting. Opinions seem to vary more on topics like hunting over bait, road hunting and driving deer.

Then it becomes a matter of personal choice. Among the more common responses to my query were things like: “It’s not for me. I prefer the thrill of the chase, but to each their own.” Others found the practice more objectionable, “like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Some expanded on that theme, explaining the long term detrimental effects on local deer populations. “If you want to destroy the deer herd, go ahead.” Is it merely another means to meet wildlife management objectives? Or do these early snow accumulations and deep cold spells, which seem to occur with more frequency in recent years, result in an over-harvest in localized areas?

As one respondent pointed out, “If you don’t kill them, the coyotes will.” Here, too, there’s a bit of hyperbole, but with a healthy dose of truth. Deer concentrated into wintering areas do provide easy pickings for predators.

Some say you can’t legislate ethics. Maybe you can. Shooting ducks on the water is legal, but the very similar act of shooting turkeys out of the roost is illegal in most states. In Pennsylvania, it’s legal to drive deer with a dozen or more people. In Maine you can’t have more than three hunters involved in a deliberate effort to move deer in a particular direction. There are probably just as many states that allow baiting as don’t. Several have banned the practice recently, not out of any ethical dilemma, but in an effort to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.

In the final analysis, I guess it really does come down to personal choice. It’s our resource. We entrust state agencies to manage it, based on the best available science and preferences identified by the majority of hunters who participate in public forums. How we use it is up to us. For some, the end justifies the means, and a deer taken by any legal means is legitimate. For others, reward comes from the experience of succeeding despite additional, self-imposed limitations on how you go about your hunt.

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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