By now most kids have been back in school for a month or so and hopefully part of their curriculum includes history. Studying the past offers benefit both in the present and the future. It helps put things into perspective in understanding how we got to where we are and, as one Spanish philosopher pointed out, prevents us from making the same mistakes as others before us.

Cleaning out my bookshelves recently I came upon a copy of Game Division Bulletin No. 8: A History of the White-tailed Deer in Maine. Perusing its pages proved to be an enlightening experience, particularly comparing the similarities and differences between now and what the Bulletin refers to as the recent past: 1920-1960. Let me share a few tidbits.

Between 1920 and 1950, Maine lost 18,000 working farms comprising 1.25 million acres. Whitetails are an edge species so the reversion of that land through natural succession certainly had a positive effect for them, adding an area roughly the size of Washington County to the amount of available deer habitat. Some evidence to support this contention can be found in the deer kill, which rose from 5,829 in 1920 to 39,216 in 1950. Of course, there were other contributing factors.

The period from 1930 to 1950 saw a dramatic rise in hunting license sales, which more than doubled, from 74,591 in 1930 to 152,052 in 1950, and rose to 182,652 by 1960. In contrast, an estimated 208,692 hunters harvested 32,451 deer in 2018. That’s not too dissimilar to 1950, but much occurred in the interim, including another boom in license sales in the 1970s and a steady increase in the deer population over the next two decades followed by population crashes in the late 1990s and mid 2000s.

It is even more surprising to see we’ve ended up so similar to 1950 considering the changes that have occurred in deer management. In 1921, hunters were allowed two deer and the hunting season ran from Oct. 1 through Dec. 15, dates that likely influenced some of the seasons we have today. The statewide bag limit was reduced to one deer in 1925, and the State established a two-zone (north-south) system in 1939 (something to consider), a three-zone system from 1960 through 1962 and a four-zone system from 1963 through 1966. The early ’80s saw establishment of a muzzleloader season, a change to a statewide four-week season and the “bucks-only” law and any-deer permit system.

Going back to the 1920s, the Bulletin noted “Coincident with the growth of the deer herd in agricultural areas of the State, trouble arose because of the white-tail’s pronounced liking for certain orchard and garden produce.” Sound familiar? That, and an increase in car-deer collisions, were part of the impetus for establishment of the expanded archery season in 1999. As the saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

For example, while the deer population rose steady over that historical period, it was punctuated with dramatic short-term declines. Between 1933 and 1934 the deer killed dropped by more than 5,000, mostly due to severe winter loss, similar to what occurred in the early- and mid-2000s. In each case the deer herd recovered. It always does, but recovery has been more difficult in recent years.

This has, in part, led to perhaps the biggest difference between then and now: overall distribution. In the 1920s, northern Maine was the stronghold for deer, with northern Penobscot and Somerset counties being considered a deer hunting Mecca, not just in Maine but across the northeast. Even as recently as two decades ago, northern Maine was the big producer of Maine’s biggest bucks as indicated by records from the Biggest Bucks of Maine and the Maine Antler & Skull Trophy Club.

The aforementioned severe winters knocked the herd back and now, a lack of protection for crucial winter habitat and a proliferation of predators have kept deer populations in northern and eastern Maine from recovering. Increasingly more of the largest deer taken each year are coming from central and even southern Maine, but on average they are younger and smaller in terms of both dressed weight and antler score. The proliferation of any-deer permits issued this year will likely result in a much higher deer kill than we’ve experienced in recent years, and perhaps provide a temporary reduction in the southern deer herd, but will provide little – if any – solution to long-term issues in northern and eastern Maine.

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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