July 14, 2020

Deer Yards and Recreational Trails

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Note: The below article has been submitted to the Bethel Citizen, a local newsprint publication and subsidiary of the Lewiston Sun Journal (Sun Media Group). It is intended as an open letter to the State of Maine, the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Legislature, and any and all groups that develop land and in particular recreational trails.

Maine’s Trails Need Consideration for Wildlife

Open Air with Tom Remington

The Bethel, Maine area has become one of the fastest growing areas when it comes to the use and development of recreational trails. With little or no guidelines to develop, expand, or limit use, perhaps now is a better time than later to closely examine the effects of increased use by people and pets on trails throughout the year.

Trails for recreation are a great thing. As cultural demands change, I have watched as old logging roads, railroad beds, footpaths, hiking trails, snowmobile and ATV trails, etc., have been upgraded and are maintained for increased traffic far beyond foot traffic alone. The Western Maine area, which includes Bethel, at present has the most recreational trails available than at any other time in history.

With the development of paths, capable of moving more and different forms of recreation to greater distances, in less time, with manual and motorized transportation devices, with this come direct threats to our wildlife. We don’t always think about how our presence and activities can negatively effect habitat.

If we take a look at the whitetail deer population and how their biological cycles go allowing them to survive long winters in Maine, then perhaps we can see a definite need for considerations in locating trails, size of trails, and intended uses.

During the winter months, the whitetail deer in Maine, move into what our biologists at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) call Deer Wintering Areas (DWA). Most don’t realize that the Bethel region is home to a few of these DWAs, with one that used to be one of the state’s largest located near the Bethel Airport and within land which is now part of the Bingham Forest Park.

When deer enter Deer Wintering Areas (typically at the end of November into mid-December depending on weather conditions), their metabolism begins to slow. This is a necessary and natural adaptation that allows deer to conserve energy needed to stay warm and survive. This approximate 100-day period, where deer eat very little and what they do consume is more to fill a void than provide nutrition, is an extremely critical time.

It is during these mid-winter days, that deer are at their most vulnerable stage of existence. Any disturbances within these DWAs can result in near immediate death.

I have written in the past about concerns that I have with DIFW offering late season deer hunting opportunities for concern that deer that have already begun to “yard up” will be unnecessarily stressed by the presence of hunters. I also have concerns about when and where people can “shed hunt” (search of antlers) because efforts can stress deer and other wildlife during critical times.

Biologists at DIFW repeatedly echo that the biggest obstacle in efforts to maintain and manage healthy levels of whitetail deer is destruction/loss of habitat.

With all of this in mind, it would seem but only reasonable and responsible that all efforts to seek advice and guidelines be sought from professionals BEFORE construction or expansion of recreational trails. This is far better than waiting for the strong arm of the “law” to come down on all of us.

It’s not just a trail. Consideration must be taken as to the location of a trail and just as important, what types of use are intended. For example, a small walking path through the middle of a DWA, while I would strongly urge that no trail be built going through any DWA, would seem less stressful on deer than motorized recreational devices that would frighten and cause deer to run away, using up valuable energy to stay alive. Any and all activity penetrating a DWA is undue deadly stress and can be easily prevented.

As trails are developed, upgraded, and advertised for use, with it comes increased use. This use always includes those who want to go outside on trails with their pets. A combination of people, noise, and ambitious dogs looking to bark at and chase (they are dogs after all) yarded up deer, can be catastrophic.

I would implore all who are looking to create and/or expand new or existing trails anywhere, first seek help from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. The DIFW has biologists who can help locate DWAs and advise on the best possible ways of getting where you would like your trials to go with the least chance of wildlife and ecosystem disturbances.

This is in no way intended to speak negatively against recreational trails, only to request that all trails be done in the best possible way for ALL.

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