by Ron Lyon - Saturday, April 20, 2019
I have always loved a good deer-hunting story: stories told wide-eyed and shivering at the harvest site or leisurely around the campfire, of the one that got away or the one that didn’t. They never cease to hold my attention. According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), Mainers can expect another great year of hunting tales from the field.
The 2017 season’s harvest of 27,233 deer was the highest in Maine since 2007’s 28,885. Those numbers alone make it a great story. When Maine’s 2018 deer season closed Dec. 8, initial estimates showed the harvest undoubtedly would surpass 2007’s figures. By that point, estimates based on Maine’s online registration system were already close to 2004 harvest numbers when 30,926 deer were reported. As of Nov. 26, 2018, Maine hunters had logged 30,299 deer. I later discovered that the past year’s harvest had surpassed 2004 and officially will be ranked as the best since 2002.
This was not unexpected. In managing its deer populations, MDIFW had increased the number of available “any deer” permits by 28 percent over the previous year to 84,745. These any-deer permits allow a hunter the option of taking a deer of either sex and are a valuable tool in herd management. When I spoke with MDIFW Wildlife Biologist Nathan Bieber about these permits and Maine’s 2018 season, he mentioned the any-deer permit’s role in the increased harvest but also its role in “quality management.” A common herd management issue is the ratio of makes to females, or bucks to does, within the population. These permits allow biologists to focus on the populations of females in different regions of the state and provide for an increase or decrease in the female harvest, thereby increasing the quality of the overall hunting experience. This is exactly the type of scientifically-based herd management used, for example, in balancing age-class structure and sex ratios in the mule deer population in certain areas of Texas where too many young bucks were being harvested.
In another factor affecting deer harvest, urban sprawl meets deer management in the form of Maine’s expanded archery season in urban areas. Longer archery seasons in certain areas have been a part of Maine’s management plan for over a decade and have garnered positive results. This program provides more opportunities for the hunting public and reduces the often problematic and growing urban deer herd. Over-browsing of the land and vehicle interactions can have a detrimental effect on these populations. Bieber says the state is already looking at options for the 2019 season to increase the harvest in several overpopulated areas. In Connecticut, for example, the state had to step in and manage herds in settled areas where deer were suffering from stunted bone growth and fur problems because their numbers had exceeded carrying capacity, or what the habitat could support.
When you factor in the string of mild winters in the southern part of the state, there also are more surviving deer to hunt. As a Georgia boy, this is a foreign concept to me. The fact is, harsher northern winters result in a built-in mortality rate. The last three winters in Maine have been characterized as mild, especially in the south where the majority of Mainers live. Much of Maine’s interior is uninhabited.
All of this fantastic news comes just a few years after some were asking, “Where are the deer?” George Smith, longtime executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, laments the loss of both hunters and deer in a Bangor Daily News article from just three years ago. “These days, the woods are quiet on opening day and throughout the season, with just an occasional shot. And I don’t see the vehicles parked along every rural road like I used to.”
Stories like these are the ones that no one likes to tell but they constitute a chapter in the book of modern hunting. Nationally, hunter participation is trending downward and, therefore, so is the funding that is essential to conservation efforts. Aging hunter populations and the digital entertainment age have been pointed to as causes. While the first certainly is inevitable, the second has had its bright spots.
Social media has proved a benefit for some states. Georgia, for example, recently posted positive growth in hunter participation numbers and directly credits the ability to digitally partner with organizations under the national “R3” initiative. R3 stands for recruitment of new hunters, retention of current hunters and reactivation of former hunters. Tennessee is benefiting from these modern practices as well, since hiring the successful manager of Georgia’s Marketing and Communications office, Jenifer Wisniewski. By simply maximizing marketing options and providing educational resources through partner organizations and assisting their work, Georgia has had a 13 percent increase in hunting license sales over the last five years.
During my online research I came across an old job posting from the MDIFW seeking a coordinator specifically for its R3 efforts. That new hire, as of July 2018, is Katie Yates, who comes from a marketing background and will be very busy in her new job. Her initial task is immense. To bring Maine’s R3 program to its fullest potential will require a complete evaluation of existing initiatives and the creation of new ones. Technology will be a standard tool of Maine’s efforts. “We are applying new marketing tactics to traditional outdoor activities to inspire a new generation of participants.” As Yates puts it, “It’s an exciting time to be working on R3 projects… We have the opportunity in Maine to set some examples while walking in the successful footsteps of Georgia and Iowa.”
A hearty congratulations goes out to all of Maine’s successful hunters from this season. Hunters’ contribution to the wildlife conservation effort cannot be overstated. When you pull that venison from the freezer or pick up that buck from the taxidermist, think of Nathan Bieber and Katie Yates. They are working hard for you. You can help by recruiting a new hunter, helping to retain active hunters and/or reactivating a hunter who hasn’t been afield in a while. Maine’s wildlife and hunting traditions—and America’s—depend on it.
About the Author: Ronnie Lyon began hunting when he was 5 years old under the mentorship of his father. He started with squirrel and dove, and graduated to whitetail deer. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1992 to 1994 as an avionics technician. After he got out, he worked as an aircraft mechanic and earned his pilot's license. He lives in Griffin, Georgia, with his wife and four children. He still hunts with his dad. He is also a knifemaker. When he isn't working, hunting, making knives or writing, he's fishing, camping and bushcrafting.
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