The 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.
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.”