Proposed changes to Maine’s deer permit system would require hunters to pay $12 to obtain an antlerless permit, but they would be able to harvest both a buck and a doe. Gabe Souza/Staff file photo

State wildlife officials plan to overhaul Maine’s deer permit system as a part of a dramatic shift in deer management strategy designed to thin the herd in southern and central Maine while protecting the scant deer population in the rest of the state.

For the first time, hunters would be charged a fee – $12 – to obtain a deer permit. The traditional any-deer permits, which allow hunters to harvest either a buck or a doe, would be replaced by an antlerless permit that would allow hunters to kill both.

Biologists believe the fee, along with the opportunity to kill both a buck and doe, will do a better job of getting deer permits into the hands of proficient hunters who could help cull does in the southern part of the state.

The changes are likely to take effect for this fall’s deer hunting season. Revenue from the permit fees would go to the state’s Deer Management Fund to purchase and manage deer wintering areas in western, northern and eastern Maine, where the herd has been in decline for more than 20 years. The new permit could raise as much as $800,000 annually, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The changes are written into L.D. 116, a bill that the Maine House and Senate passed last week and is now before the Appropriations Committee, where the fiscal details are being finalized.

Nathan Bieber, the state’s deer biologist, said IFW doesn’t expect the bill will face hurdles, and that the new antlerless deer permits will be implemented for the firearm season, which this year opens on Oct. 22 on Youth Deer Day and runs for adult hunters from Oct. 29 to Nov. 26.

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Reaction from hunters to the proposed changes has been mixed.

Dennis Blackman of Boothbay, who has been hunting more than 60 years, said adding a cost to the deer permit is a significant change.

“I can see where a lot of people would go along with that. But I can see where some wouldn’t,” Blackman said. “I wouldn’t mind paying the extra, but I can see a lot of people that got them for free all their lives and now have to pay for them. They’re going to be ticked off.”

But Ken Scribner of Durham is looking forward to the chance to take both a buck and a doe with a new antlerless permit.

“The way I first heard it was IFW was trying to get another $12 out of us,” said Scribner, 73. “But my understanding was that if you get drawn, you’ll be able to take a buck and a doe. I like that.”

OLD PERMIT SYSTEM NOT WORKING

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Bieber said the any-deer permit system in place since 1986 has failed to achieve IFW’s objective of culling does in areas with high deer densities, such as central and southern Maine and along the Midcoast. Maine reported the highest incidence of Lyme disease in the nation in 2021, largely because deer ticks are prevalent in these areas.

Only once in the past 10 years has the doe harvest met IFW’s annual goals for the state. Last fall, for example, the doe harvest of 11,066 fell short of the department’s goal by 27 percent. In 2020, the doe harvest of 9,116 fell short of the goal by 31 percent.

 “(The any-deer permit) has been used pretty well, but over time it’s become less effective, particularly in parts of the state with a lot more deer. In central Maine, the effectiveness has gone down quite a bit,” Bieber said.

“It’s gotten to the point we have a lot more permits than applications. Then we have extra permits that are piled onto hunters and some hunters have two, three or four permits, and the likelihood of a hunter using them is low.”

Efforts to dramatically increase the availability of any-deer permits in recent years – from 68,145 in 2019 to 153,900 in 2021 – did not work. Last year there were only 89,000 applications for permits issued through the annual lottery.

Part of the problem, Bieber said, is the culture of deer hunting. Bieber said just over 50 percent of Maine deer hunters participate in the any-deer permit lottery, largely because most hunters want a buck. Anyone with a Maine big-game hunting license can kill one buck each fall, with or without an any-deer permit. Even some hunters drawn in the any-deer lottery, he said, will pass on a doe for the chance to harvest a buck.

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However, the new antlerless deer permit system should result in a higher doe harvest, Bieber said. Getting the right to harvest two deer with one permit could make all the difference. Bieber hopes it will inspire the most proficient hunters to purchase the permit. Then – by getting the hunters who have not participated in the deer lottery to do so – the state may be able to start thinning the deer herd in areas where it is oversaturated.

Permit numbers for 2022 have yet to be established. The new permits would continue to be dispersed through a lottery, as they have been for 36 years. Entering the lottery will remain free, with hunters having to pay the $12 fee once they’ve been selected for an antlerless permit.

IFW also is proposing that the antlerless permits left over after the lottery be available for purchase – on a first-come, first-served basis – for the $12 fee. But only one “bonus permit” would be available per hunter.

EFFORTS TO RESTORE HERD IN NORTHERN MAINE

State biologists estimate there are roughly 320,000 deer statewide – up from 240,000 in 2017 – with densities ranging widely from one to two deer per square mile in northern Maine to about 40 deer per square mile in southern parts of the state.

White-tailed deer are at the northern end of the species’ range in Aroostook County. The herd has been shrinking the past 20 years in northern Maine with changes in forestry practices, the surge in the eastern coyotes that prey on deer, and the loss of wintering habitat, which the deer need for protection from the deep snow pack.

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Hunters in northern Maine are elated by the proposed changes, said Jerry McLaughlin, founder of the Aroostook County Conservation Association, which has worked to bring the deer herd back to northern Maine.

“This is the first sign of light I’ve seen that the state is moving forward to help us. We need all the help we can get,” said McLaughlin, 72. “I just got back from Allagash. It’s a sad thing the way they’re cutting the woods. They cut it so hard, they take away the canopy, so the deer (in wintertime) don’t have a chance to come back here.” 

David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said he’s been working on bringing the deer herd back to northern Maine for 25 years, since he first served in the Legislature before taking over as SAM director.

He said the land protected as deer management areas also will be used by as many as 30 other species of wildlife – from hawks, owls and woodpeckers to bobcats and snowshoe hares. Moreover, Trahan added, that protected land also can be used by outdoor enthusiasts, though perhaps not in wintertime, when the deer need it.

“This for me is a perfect scenario. It’s everything you could possibly need to buy the deer yards and bring the deer back to northern, eastern and western Maine. It’s a big deal,” Trahan said. “I’ve seen the landscape there. In some areas, deer herds just don’t even exist anymore. We may not see it come back in my lifetime, but we’ll have all the tools to do it.”

The proposal also makes sense to Shawn Sage, former president of the Buxton-Hollis Fish and Game Club. Sage hunts in Maine as well as in Pennsylvania, where deer are so plentiful that hunters can shoot more than one doe. Sage thinks in Maine more deer tags will be used because the most experienced hunters won’t have to worry about winning a tag in the lottery – or giving up the chance to harvest a buck with it. 

“In southern Maine, the deer herd is exploding. If nothing is done, it will become like PA, they’ll become like squirrels. They need to thin them down here,” Sage said.


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