March 28, 2023

In Maine: Youth Hunting vs. Rebuilding a Deer Herd

The state of Maine has a bit of a dilemma. One one hand, efforts are and have been underway to develop programs to get kids out from behind their computers and electronic devices and into the woods to hunt, fish and trap. On the other hand, that’s a difficult thing to accomplish when there aren’t any deer to hunt. By the way, save the talking points about how great the turkey and grouse hunting are and other small game. The fact is deer hunting is the most popular hunting activity in Maine.

George Smith, administrator of the blog, and former executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, writes that a proposed rule change to allow Maine’s youth, on Youth Day, to kill antlerless deer in zones where no permits are issued, is a “controversy brewing”.

How big of a controversy remains to be seen but here’s a look at some of both sides of the issue. On the Saturday before the regular firearms season for deer opens in Maine, there is a Youth Day for hunting. This Youth Day was formulated as part of a plan to encourage kids to hunt. A special day, just for them, set aside before the regular season, when deer aren’t so nerved up and timid, in which underage hunters, accompanied by an adult, could venture into the woods to hunt and follow all existing game rules.

Beginning during the 2009 deer season, the awarding of “Any-Deer Permits” was ended entirely in many of the Northern, Downeast and Western Mountains regions of Maine – 18 Wildlife Management Districts all together. This was due to a collapsing deer herd. The taking of doe deer in these zones has been prohibited since and this included Youth Day hunting as well.

Part of the dilemma is that if we cannot recruit at least enough new hunters to replace the retired and dead hunters, participation will drop and with this decline, license sales also wane which in turn reduces necessary funding for wildlife management.

With the proposal to change this rule that will allow for the taking of antlerless deer in those zones where “Any-Deer Permits” are not issued, will it have a measurable impact on efforts to recover a depleted deer herd? In addition, will not allowing youth to take antlerless deer impact recruitment of new hunters?

As far as the new rule proposal goes, we can only make somewhat of an educated guess as to what kind of impact this will have on kids. I would think that the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) would have some license sales data that would show what has happened to youth license sales since 2009 when “Any-Deer Permits” were cancelled.

From my own experiences in covering hunting nationwide, historically when major events occur, especially those where hunting opportunity has been significantly reduced, the first year sees a marked decline in license sales but then seems to recover. I don’t know if this same dynamic would apply here but it is something to consider.

Aside from concerns of youth recruitment, the other side of the controversy is whether Maine should be allowing the killing of doe deer in these zones where the deer herd is at or near unsustainable levels. Whether some or any taking of doe deer is problematic depends upon who you talk to. Let’s look at some numbers.

The Youth Day deer harvest is one issue to consider. Bear in mind that the readily available information on the MDIFW website is limited. I only have total youth harvest numbers and am forced to do some of my own calculating based on past histories.

The last year that youth were allowed to take antlerless deer in now restricted zones, was 2008. The youth harvest for that year was 509. Moving on to 2009, the first year of the restriction, the total youth harvest was 330. According to MDIFW this drop was entirely attributed to the restriction of taking antlerless deer in much of the state. Move ahead to 2010 and we see a youth harvest of 440, a 35% increase over the previous year. And then in 2011 that same harvest saw 537 deer taken.

As I said, I don’t have any breakdowns of this harvest. Bear in mind that the harvest numbers comprise all deer that can be legally taken. So, for example, in 2011, of the 537 deer taken by youth, we have no idea how many were adult and of what sex and how many were fawns and of what sex.

While MDIFW attributes the reduction in deer harvest for youth in 2009 on the restriction, I’m not convinced that it was a big a drop for that one reason. One would have to examine how many antlered deer were taken on Youth Day in 2007 and compare that with antlered deer on Youth Day 2009.

Youth hunters aren’t restricted to antlerless deer. If they don’t have the option to take an antlerless deer, those who hunt anyway, while they have a reduced chance of bagging a deer, will change their hunting strategies and probably time in the woods in hopes of bagging an antlered deer.

But all this number crunching isn’t answering the real question of whether or not changing the rule will have a measurable effect. Can we assume that in order to help answer that question, we would need to know just how many doe deer did or would be killed if the rule was changed? So let’s look at 2008 and attempt to make some historical comparisons in order to arrive at a figure that might be usable.

Bear with me as I will have to make a certain number of assumption. 509 deer total were killed on Youth Day in 2008 and 330 in 2009. That’s a total of 179 deer statewide. MDIFW says this number is, “primarily due to the prohibition on taking antlerless deer in bucks only WMDs.”

Not knowing precisely what “primarily” means, then let’s, for the sake of argument, say that in 18 of Maine’s Wildlife Management Districts (WMD), which include all of northern Maine, Downeast and the western mountains, 179 total deer were taken by youth in 2008. Looking at the harvest numbers for 2009, 2010 and 2011, it would appear to me that because total youth harvest numbers continue to climb, the popularity of Youth Day has gone up, and/or the available deer to harvest has increased, among some other things.

Once again for the sake of argument, if total youth harvest statewide has increased since the antlerless restrictions by approximately 38%, then let’s increase that number, 179, by 38% in an attempt to be fair and as realistic as I can. With that, I might be able to project that if youth were still allowed to take antlerless deer in those 18 restricted WMDs, that 179 number would grow to 247 deer – that is if all this were relative and we know they’re not. Stay with me as I don’t think the numbers are so greatly different.

If youth were taking 247 deer on Youth Day in what is now restricted WMDs, what would the harvest data look like? In other words, of those 247 deer, how many would be adult does and adult antlered males and how many would be male and female fawns? We can only guess by making another assumption that perhaps this dynamic would resemble that of the regular statewide harvest; at least to arrive at a usable number.

In 2011, a total statewide deer harvest was 18,839. Approximately 69% of that harvest was antlered bucks, 23% were adult does and 8% were fawns. If we use the same percentages on the 247 deer in my projected harvest by youth, we would see about 170 would be antlered deer, 57 adult does and 20 fawns.

Let’s be realistic. This percentage will be to some degree skewed because hunting conditions vary so greatly throughout the state and youth hunters, I think by nature, tend to take the first and easiest deer they can. Am I wrong?

If that’s the case, then the chances that the youth would not exactly follow statewide trends in the killing of fawns and does, and would probably up those percentages. Would it be realistic to say that 60% of all of the deer that might be taken in these restricted zones were adult does and fawns? Let’s say 150 deer (60% of 247) taken that day would be either an adult doe or a fawn. How do those numbers compare? State average indicates there would be twice as many adult does as fawns. If so, then 100 of those deer would be adult does of breeding age mostly. 50 would be fawns. Historically, birthrates for fawns is roughly 50% male and 50% female.

In my long and drawn out calculations (and I apologize), 125 doe deer would be taken in 18 WMDs. You’ll have to decide whether that is a significant number or not, whether it will limit deer recovery and how much and is it of enough value compared to new hunter recruitment to stick to the current restrictions.

I know that my calculations will get some of you ramping up your own number crunching and I encourage it. However, before you do, let me offer you this bit of information that I got from Lee Kantar back in April of 2008. Lee Kantar is Maine’s lead deer and moose biologist. I had asked Kantar about buck to doe ratios during a series of emails. Here’s what he said in one of those and then I’ll offer some more comment:

If you had enough buck hunting pressure (which occurs in other states) that works out to 70-90% annual buck mortality and combine that with little to no doe hunting (combined with good survival, in other words-little to no winter mortality) the most you could skew the sex ratio would be 5 does to 1 buck. IF you met those conditions. In northern Maine, annual mortality on does can be in the mid 20’s and higher. This combined with poor recruitment not only stagnates population growth or causes a decline, but in combination with actual annual buck mortality, it sets up a scenario for buck to doe ratios being between 1.1 adult does to adult bucks to 2 adult does to adult bucks. As we have talked about, does and bucks use habitat differently, forage differently, and those bucks get pretty smart and savvy about using cover.

I will not attempt, again here as I have done numerous times, to explain the math of ratios. What I will do is offer what’s on the ground with what Mr. Kantar said for your comparison.

Kantar spoke of 70-90% annual buck mortality. Does northern Maine and other portions with extremely low densities of deer have a buck mortality this high? Some would argue yes! We know that in these restricted zones, there is no doe hunting. The winter survival has been decent the past couple of years in many of these zones and with the exception of two years, pretty good over the past decade or so.

If these conditions exist in Northern Maine, where there is or approaches 70-90% buck mortality, no doe hunting, etc. then a buck to doe ratio might exist that is 1:5 as indicated by Lee Kantar.

I never got one question answered that I had asked. That was, if there was a 1:5 ratio, would all the does get bred? Over the years I have gotten differing opinions on this from scientists. It seems agreeable that with a skewed ratio like this, too many does would get bred late resulting in late fawning, that presents its own set of problems.

And then we are left with that same old argument most of us have also heard from MDIFW that closing hunting would be senseless because a certain percentage of deer are going to die anyway during the winter.

Can we now ask if 125 breeding does, taken by youth, spread out over 18 WMDs, going to stop or harm the deer recovery? Your call.

Tom Remington