October 23, 2020

Buy Em Guns, Send Them to Hunt, and Then What?

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I was reading Bob Humphrey’s recent article about making this year “The Year of the Hunter.” As I have come to expect, Bob Humphrey, one of Maine’s better outdoor writers, is always full of words that are constructive and positive, something perhaps I should take a lesson in. However, I am too strong a realist to be drawn so far away that I would find myself showing up to a birthday party that has no balloons, ice cream, and a cake.

Mr. Humphrey laments of the continuing decline in hunter participation. We tend to superficially putter along with suggestions of how to increase hunter participation, with perhaps not putting enough focus on the balloons and the birthday cake.

All of the writer’s suggestions make a lot of sense: recruitment, mentorship, apprenticeship licenses, involvement in “R3 Program” (recruit, retain, reactivate), controlling social media, improved landowner relationships, joining deer conservation and advocacy groups, and basically speaking out about the positive aspects of hunting.

While Humphrey sort of casually mentions, “Since 1988, the Quality Deer Management Association has promoted “sustainable, high-quality deer populations, wildlife habitats and ethical hunting experiences through research, education, advocacy and hunter recruitment.”

There are many groups of all variety of make-up that “promote sustainable, high-quality deer populations,” but what does promote mean? Are these groups forming because state-funded government fish and game departments are incapable of sustaining high-quality deer populations? Don’t we need our fish and game departments to go beyond marketing a not-so-good product…with a straight face no doubt? Fish and game departments should be the leaders not the followers of advocacy groups.

All dressed up for the party, with invitation in hand, and all the supporting propaganda telling me what a great party this is going to be, arriving at the party and finding no cake and ice cream means I won’t be hanging around for long, and will become gun shy (sorry) to return again.

All states’ deer hunting problems are different. All states are suffering some degree of hunter loss. With a dwindling population of hunters (I would bet with continued hunter loss those retaining an interest are more serious about what they do and thus will seek out those places where they have the best chance a bagging a “trophy.”), competition becomes real and it is a no-brainer that if the party has no cake and ice cream, the interest will continue to decline and Maine is removed from consideration as a destination hunting ground and interest within the state continues to shrink.

Yes, there are other problems too that contribute to the lack of interest, but an unsustainable, poor-quality deer population makes all other “recruitment, retentions, reactivation” efforts a bit of a futile effort.

People in Maine are a bit dishonestly led to believe that the deer population is “healthy” and that while numbers may not be at peak levels, there are plenty of deer to go around. It is when we honestly examine where the deer are concentrated we realize the majority of geographic and huntable areas, have deer densities that make it, let’s say, a poor product that is very difficult to promote “retention, recruitment, and reactivation.”

Back in October, I commented on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s (MDIFW) efforts at promoting “R3” by recruiting some greenhorns and sticking them in a ground blind in the middle of a game preserve. Oddly enough, from a state that is not exactly all in with “canned hunting” they use canned hunting in an attempt to recruit new hunters. The question I asked is why didn’t the MDIFW put them in places where the rest of us are forced to hunt? The answer is simple. Sitting in a blind for hours on end seeing nothing, is like going to a birthday party with no cake and ice cream. Are you getting my point here?

Not that we should give up all the efforts that Mr. Humphrey and others have suggested to recruit more hunters, but retention and reactivation is going to be a very big task to accomplish unless those huntable regions of Maine grow more deer.

So, the big and obvious question is how do we grow more deer in Maine’s huntable and deerless regions? Let’s first begin with what we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t use terrible excuses, like Climate Change and claiming there’s just as many deer now as there used to be – there may be but they aren’t where they can be hunted. If a warming climate, the most favorite of all excuses, was real, then Maine deer regions to the north would be seeing deer growth as the winters become less severe and the forests change. The news is they are not.

We need to work even harder with landowners, even the big ones, to protect deer wintering areas. But large predators growing at unchecked rates is a real problem. While some efforts have been undertaken to reduce coyote/wolf populations, more effort needs to be done. We eat deer. We don’t eat coyotes…at least not yet.

At the same time, serious efforts need to be taken to cut the black bear population down to “healthy” levels – healthy for the bears and healthy for deer. Bears are killing fawns soon after the fawning season, seriously cutting into fawn recruitment, making sustainable deer populations impossible.

The Maine Legislature needs to stop dawdling and caving to special interest groups, like guides and outfitters, and do what is best for all game populations, not necessarily bank accounts.

Consider what has changed since deer populations in many parts of the state have dwindled. In those same regions, black bear populations are growing out of control, coyote/wolf numbers are at all time highs, and moose numbers remain strong. Why is it that all that can be seen is finding fault with the Climate?

I don’t know of any hunters who seriously want to see the Big Woods of northern Maine teeming with deer. However, an increase from 1-3 deer per square mile, to 2-5 deer per square mile or even 3-6 might make a huge difference in accomplishing the 3 “Rs.”

If Maine is going to push this recruitment, retention, and reactivation thing, let’s lay the groundwork first to make sure we got the cake and ice cream. It sure would make all that work a lot easier. Who knows, if Maine had a terrific deer product to market…if you build it they will come?

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