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'A Hard Place to Grow Deer'

‘A Hard Place to Grow Deer’
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I get my wish a half-hour later–along with a deeper appreciation of the issues facing Maine’s winter deer herd. The Lily Bay yard spills over into the planned community of Beaver Cove, a mostly seasonal cluster of homes where eight of the year-round families have been feeding deer this winter. Some of them have been spreading grain. One family puts out dog food; another one, food scraps such as potato and banana peels.

A colleague of Doug Kane’s, Scott McLellan, picks me up and drives me out to meet a retired couple, Mike and Mary Hachey. The Hacheys have set out a mineral lick in their backyard, and since January 1 have been scattering sliced apples twice a day. At 4:30 p.m., Mike Hachey walks out into the plowed area and dumps out the evening allotment. Before he’s even back inside, deer materialize from the woods edging the property, as if called by a dinner bell. Ten, twelve, eighteen of them, all of them looking healthy. A few more tentatively join the crowd; I count 22 in all, and it feels disorienting, slightly thrilling, but weirdly unnatural, as if I’m watching tame deer at a petting zoo’s afternoon feeding.

Along with the calories and nutrition, the feeding of deer brings a number of unintended consequences, from increased road kill and predation by dogs and coyotes, to the potential introduction of food that’s incompatible with a deer’s digestive system, to a loss of ability to find natural food sources. Part of McLellan’s visit is a gentle education campaign. Feeding deer is a politically and emotionally charged issue in Maine, one that biologists would like to discourage.

The snow in the woods around Lily Bay hangs on–not moderately–into May. Of the past 60 winters in north-central Maine, Doug Kane’s data puts this one in the top third in terms of severity. Figures on the deer herd’s mortality won’t be fully evident until the following hunting season, but they immediately help shape the population modeling and number of hunting permits granted statewide–one of the few management tools available to state biologists. In late spring, the last of the families feeding deer in Beaver Cove puts out food for 75–and finally calls the state to ask for help.

I phone wildlife biologist Lee Kantar, the deer and moose spokesman for Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Kantar is a thoughtful, measured speaker who understands the frustration that hunters feel about the diminishing deer herd; he empathizes with residents’ desire to do something to help.

He also has a clear view of a larger picture, one unclouded by mythology and emotion. “Hunters remember the good old days,” he says. “Post-World War II, post-wolf, pre-modern forestry, pre-road density, pre-snowshoe hare and coyote. The reality is that deer are responding to large landscape-level changes to the northern forest over several decades.”

The trajectory, he points out, has been downward since the spruce budworm epidemic more than 30 years ago; it devastated a huge part of the working forest and led to a massive salvage operation, which destroyed a lot of forest. Partly in response, environmentalists helped push for a law that limited the clear-cutting that timber companies could do. To continue meeting their volume needs, the industry then built more roads, accessing additional areas.

“Good winter habitat has been severely reduced,” Kantar says, “and meanwhile, winter does what winter does. Everyone wants us to do something, but we’re limited by biological and ecological reality. And the reality is: Maine is an awfully hard place to grow deer.”

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