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'A Hard Place to Grow Deer'

‘A Hard Place to Grow Deer’
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DeerThe winter of 2011 came slowly to north-central Maine. Low snowfall and mild temperatures had run through most of December, giving the deer a reprieve. But in January the season turned cold and unrelenting. For six weeks, there was no thaw, and now the snow on the eastern side of Moosehead Lake lay three feet deep in places, including the deeryard near Lily Bay.

It’s a short truck ride to Lily Bay from the Region E headquarters of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife in Greenville. If white-tailed deer could have a say about surviving at the tenuous northern edge of the species’ range, this part of Maine would be the last place they’d choose. “Normally Jackman and northwest of Moosehead have the most severe winters in the state,” biologist Doug Kane tells me during the drive. “But east of the lake has been just as severe this year.” As he talks, an afternoon squall blows in out of nowhere. Kane slows the truck in the whiteout. The temperature, dropping, will hit eight below by evening. “If the deer can get through this stretch,” he says, “and if spring comes a little early, the mortality might still be moderate. This is the critical time.”

On wooden snowshoes I scramble behind Kane over a five-foot-high snowbank and into a part of the yard. The squall passes as quickly as it appeared. Weak sunlight fights its way through the thick evergreen cover around us. In a few minutes, I see deer sign everywhere: deep, beaten-down paths pockmarked by tracks, piles of snow-dusted deer pellets, chewed tips of branches. Kane wends his way to a fixed wooden stake, where he takes weekly snow-depth measurements: 28 inches.

He snowshoes along the beaten-down paths, occasionally sliding a metal yardstick into the snow, like a dipstick, to find the supporting crust below, getting a sense of what a walking deer must deal with. Even more than overall snow depth, this “sinking depth” is a critical factor during a season when deer survive in large part on the energy reserves they’ve stored up over the summer and fall from grasses, protein-rich legumes, and oil-filled acorns and beechnuts.

Once the snow comes, the woody browse left for them offers scant nutrition. Large bucks can lose as much as 30 percent of their body weight over the winter. Deer spend much of each winter day lying down or walking slowly, conserving precious energy.

“Fourteen inches,” Kane calls out, lifting the dipstick. Then, “Sixteen.” Then, “Fourteen,” again. “A couple of feet would be up to their bellies,” he says. “That’s when they really have to work to get around.”

A large deeryard in Maine will shelter a couple hundred of the animals, most in small groups of related females. They take advantage, ideally, of wind-protected south-facing slopes; a mature, closed-top conifer canopy; shared paths for easier walking; a mix of softwood and hardwood browse. The part of the yard within the state park at Lily Bay is nearly ideal.

Across the road, on private land cut over more recently, it’s a different story. I follow Kane on snowshoes through scrappy cover and smaller trees. The twig ends and shrubs have been stripped chest-high. The sinking depth on Kane’s dipstick reaches 22 inches, nearly two feet–perilously deep. The measurement will be added to a growing statewide database that will help inform biologists’ efforts to bring back a deer herd that has declined dramatically in recent years. Sportsmen’s newspaper articles and op-ed columns and blogs have called the decline a crisis–and hunters have put increasing pressure on the state’s fish and game department to do something about it.

I keep hoping to see deer, bedded down or shaking snow from their coats as they bound through the woods, but Kane isn’t here to sightsee, and the day is getting on. We head back to the truck without a single sighting.

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