On the East Coast, Maine is well-known for its huge deer. That often means huge-bodied – bucks at 200-plus-pounds dressed, does in the high 100s dressed – but it can also mean big racks.
One reason Maine's deer get so big, other than climate, is there aren't many of them – and in some areas they're on the decline. While some East Coasters still travel up to Maine to "get their deer," the state's herd – especially in the north – has been hit by several ongoing factors which make getting a deer tougher. These include things like changing (older) forests, higher coyote populations and deep snow, but in particular the loss of overwintering areas, said state deer biologist Lee Kantar.
As a result, the state has a much lower deer population than its remoteness and size would indicate (though it does have a world class moose population, the best in the lower 48). "It's a challenging place to be a deer," Kantar said. Hunters still can and do get their deer there every year, and often it's a good one.
"It's about quality in Maine," he said. "We have low to moderate deer densities, and because of that we grow some decent deer. A buck even two or three years old here will be a nice deer."
Deer Population: 150,000-200,000
Economic Impact of Deer Hunting: $200 million
For numbers of deer, stick to the coast and the greater Bangor area, Kantar said. It's all about archery – just one buck, but some areas allow limitless antlerless deer. The coast means milder weather and more people, which combine for more deer. The only challenging part can be getting access to hunt.
Quality, whether measured in weight or points, "could really be anywhere," he said, "no question about that." He noted that while the "far north" has few deer, "when someone comes upon a deer, it's typically a big one." That said, a 20-pointer was taken from Maine's midcoast area last year, so "it's hard to know where [big deer] will come from."
Current Status of the Deer Population: 1-5 scale with 1 being poor and 5 being optimal
"I guess I'd put it at 3, right in the middle," Kantar said. In general terms, the south and central parts of the state are decent for deer, but up north it's tough and getting tougher.
Status 5 Years From Now
Kantar said he hopes Maine will be a 4 five years from now, but he can't tell for sure because he can't predict the weather. Still, with a recent reduction in any-deer permits – thus allowing more doe survival – he anticipates "some definite [herd] growth, barring a very severe winter."
Biggest Factors Over the Next 5 Years
The major challenge over the next five years, as it has been every year, is to conserve and increase the amount of deer wintering habitat, Kantar said. In some areas of the state – vast areas – he's up against towns with no town governments, few year-round residents and folks choosing to cut trees for a profit rather than conserve some stands as winter habitat for deer.
He's focusing on winter habitat because "all of the other forms of mortality – predation, road kill, poaching, even disease – are all difficult things to tackle to get a significant population increase."
Any Doom and Gloom?
To the question of whether he can foresee any areas of his state having a large population decline or crash at some point, Kantar said that a population decline has happened and is still happening in northern Maine because of the above factors. This basically amounts to a shrinking of the whitetail range in northern Maine, and "it will be extremely challenging for us to maintain deer at current levels [let alone] get some improvement there."
What really crushed Maine's deer, he said, was the spruce budworm epidemic of 1970s and '80s, which "helped bring down the balsam fir and spruce that were winter shelter." Yet it wasn't all bad for ungulates: That's also the same phenomenon that created so much excellent moose habitat.