November 18, 2019
Sports Column

Deep snow adds severe pressure on deer herd

It has been quite a winter, thus far … snow, snow and (today) even more snow. But at least we humans have the option of hunkering down indoors if we choose.

This morning, let’s think for a minute about critters. Specifically, those white-tailed critters that so many of us like to chase around come November.

On Wednesday, I sat down with Lee Kantar, the head deer biologist for the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, to talk about deer.

And as you might expect, the news was not good.

Kantar explained that biologists compare the winter weather conditions in various parts of the state to those that have existed, on average, over the previous 15 years.

That 15-year average is called the winter severity index, and it takes into account data that is collected at 28 different stations.

Biologists have learned that the winter severity index correlates with the number of deer that will die during the winter months.

More harsh winters, with deeper snow, means more deer will die.

“So we know that in a typical 15-year period, we can expect [a given amount] of mortality,” Kantar said. “This year, we see what it looks like so far, and it’s way above that 15-year norm.”

How far above?

Consider a couple of examples that Kantar had at his fingertips.

Wildlife Management Districts 1 and 2 are both located in extreme northern Maine. The districts stretch from the Quebec and New Brunswick borders in the west and north to Fort Kent in the east and the American Realty Road in the south.

The winter in northern Maine has been one for the record books, with snow that arrived in December and hasn’t stopped falling since.

“In a typical year in District 1 and 2, we can expect mortality from 15 and 17 percent of that herd [respectively],” Kantar said. “That’s in a given year, given normal snow conditions. In a winter like this, we’re calculating 29 and 31 percent mortalities.”

That’s right. In those two districts, nearly twice as many deer are expected to die this winter as they normally would.

Farther south, the conditions will be equally eye-opening, he said.

In WMD 17 (which stretches from Hermon to Bingham) and WMD 18 (which includes Bradley, Lincoln and Woodville) the winter will also take its toll on deer.

“In a typical year for [WMDs] 17 and 18, we would expect about seven and nine percent winter mortality,” Kantar said. “In a winter like this, we’re looking at anywhere from 14 to 17 percent mortality.”

Kantar said that different deer face different problems, with the same potential result.

Adult bucks head into winter underweight after losing as much as 25 percent of their body weight as they pursue females during the breeding season.

Kantar said adult females are in better physical shape after the breeding season but face a challenge because most are pregnant and are trying to provide sustenance for themselves and their unborn fawn.

The fawns that were born last spring go into their first winter as small animals that simply haven’t been alive long enough to put on much essential body weight.

And severe winters take their toll on all three, Kantar said.

In deer yards, deer follow each other along paths through the deep snow so that they don’t have to burn valuable energy breaking trail. They eat what’s within reach … and by this time of year, most valuable food sources near those paths have been picked clean.

“So now you have a situation where in some yards they’re so desperate because not only are they starting to over-browse what’s left of the hardwoods, but they’re starting even [to eat] bark on things like balsam fir and even feed on spruce, which has very little or no nutrient value,” Kantar said.

Before winter arrived, Kantar said he had received reports from some of the southern and central districts that indicated the deer herd was growing. He said that will help offset the heavy toll the winter will take.

But there will be changes, and hunters will feel them.

“There will be [any-deer] permits,” Kantar said. “It just won’t be at the magnitude that we’ve had over the last two years, [when] over 60,000 [were issued each year]. I’d hedge to say that it would be well below that this year.”

In some sections of the state – like WMDs 1 and 2 – the deer herd is already small enough that no any-deer permits are issued each year.

In those other districts with more deer, Kantar said the state’s biologists will study the situation closely before making any decision.

“We’re obviously going to be conservative, but we’re also going to follow our management system and take a really hard look at this from a data standpoint, and what we know, to make the best decisions and recommendations for our [any-deer] permitting in 2008,” he said.

Statewide derby update

Tom Noonan, who helps organize the Sebago Lake Rotary Club’s local and statewide Maine Chevrolet ice fishing derbies, checked in via e-mail this week to correct a mistake and offer a prize update.

According to Noonan, the winning pickerel in the statewide derby was figuratively lurking in the weeds (as pickerel often do) and hadn’t been reported to derby officials.

Therefore, the wrong winner was listed.

The actual winner: Billy Townsend, who hauled a 5.82-pounder out of Boyden Lake in Robbinston and Perry. The fish measured 261/2 inches long and outweighed the previously listed winner by 1.3 pounds.

The big shore prize winner was also from the BDN readership area: Troy Jellison of Hancock. Jellison will be riding in style, as he won a 2008 Chevy Silverado 1500.

Another lucky angler: Jennifer Kenney of Brooks, who took hom a Polaris ATV in the drawing among anglers who registered fish during the statewide derby.

Kreh to miss L.L. Bean expo

If you were planning on heading to Freeport to meet fishing legend Lefty Kreh this weekend, you’re out of luck.

According to Mac McKeever of L.L. Bean, Kreh recently underwent knee surgery and won’t be appearing during the company’s Spring Fishing Expo.

Kreh had been scheduled to appear as one of six “Legends of Fishing,” alongside Dave Whitlock, Emily Whitlock, Stu Apte, Mark Sosin and Flip Pallot.

Even without Kreh, the event promises to be a big hit, as L.L. Bean pulls out the stops to launch fishing season in style.

All-star Q & A panel discussions with the legends are planned for 3 p.m. today and 1 p.m. Sunday, and a variety of other exhibitors, fly tiers and speakers will be on hand to entertain and inform.

Sportsman’s Show on tap

One final reminder: One of our local rites of spring is going on this weekend at the University of Maine’s field house complex.

The Eastern Maine Sportsman’s Show, which is sponsored by the Penobscot Valley Conservation Association, began Friday and runs from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. today and from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Sunday.

See you there!


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