Seen any nice deer lately in western Maine?

In a state where deer hunting annually attracts more than 150,000 participants who collectively support a hunting-based economy worth more than $200 million, deer populations have dropped to alarming levels in all but southern Maine, according to Gerry Lavigne, a recently retired state deer biologist.

Rhetoric and emotions are largely pinning the blame on Eastern coyote populations, which have grown since the late 1970s, the same time deer numbers began spiraling downward, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

The real culprit some say is a complex set of factors, such as harsh winters, habitat loss, starvation, disease, bear, bobcat and coyote predation on fawns, and human-caused mortality from hunting, poaching and road kill.

Maine’s current leading deer expert seems to agree.

“It typically is multiple factors that conspire together to cause a problem and people get sick of hearing about it, but you take habitat and you pile on top of that a bad winter,” said Lee Kantar, Maine’s deer and moose biologist.

“We’re in a cycle right now where we’ve had some pretty rugged winters for deer over the last five years,” he said. “This time of the year when there’s no snow on the ground, coyotes are not running amok killing deer willy-nilly. That’s just not happening. There’s no evidence of that.”

Lavigne disagreed.

“It’s really the inter-relationship between poor habitat and the presence of coyotes that has made this the problem that it is,” Lavigne said Friday.

“In the absence of coyotes, the population of deer in northern Maine would have still gone down, but probably not as quickly or as deeply.”

“And studies have shown that during severe winters, the overall loss of deer is higher in the presence of coyotes than the absence of them,” he said.

“Coyotes aren’t just taking the starving deer; they’re taking the healthy deer, as well, so that compounds the problem,” Lavigne said.

But, according to a statement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “generally speaking, coyotes do not even hunt deer, nor do they have a significant impact on deer populations.”

According to a customer service representative at the federal wildlife agency, “the only wild canines that regularly hunt deer are wolves,” and, “coyotes are solitary hunters. Their primary prey are small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, etc., as well as a variety of vegetable matter.”

The only time, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife, “a coyote, or a pair of coyotes, were to bring down a deer, it would be one that is very old, sick or weak, which would serve to improve the deer population,” and “controlling, or even eliminating, coyote populations is not going to have any effect on the deer populations.”

In Maine, Kantar said the severe winters of 2008 and 2009 were devastating for deer.

“I think what we’re looking at right now with the deer population is that those two back-to-back winters, I think it really did a lot of damage to a lot of areas of the state up north,” he said.

Scapegoat predator

Former Oquossoc resident Walter Pepperman, a Maine Wolf Coalition advocate, and independent conservation biologist Geri Vistein of Washington, Maine, agree.

“I just do not believe that coyote predation is a problem that’s affecting the deer herd to the point that deer hunters should be thinking that coyotes are cutting into their sport,” said Pepperman, 77, now of Middletown Springs, Vt.

“Predation by coyotes is like a scapegoat for everything else that happens that affects deer numbers.”

He said he firmly believes that deer hunters “want the exclusive right to kill the deer to the exclusion of the coyotes.”

Vistein, a wildlife biologist, said she sees the coyote as a beneficial predator that keeps deer populations healthy.

“The whole concept of the predator-prey relationship on the Earth is invaluable to the health of the system, whether we’re talking about a ladybug and an aphid or we’re talking about coyotes and deer,” Vistein said.

“So, without the predator relationship, there is a lack of balance and a lack of health in the system.”

“Coyote is the best thing that happened to our deer herd in over 150 years,” Vistein said.

“Our deer herds have been without their predators and that’s the reason they are not as healthy as they should be.”

Vinalhaven Island example

To make her point, she said 300 deer were killed on Vinalhaven because the island was overpopulated due to a lack of predation. The slain deer, she said, were covered with ticks and in very poor condition.

“A small example of deer without their predators and this is what happened, and that’s not healthy having that high level of ticks,” Vistein said.

“And again, their capacity to reproduce on such a large number of deer who were really unhealthy creates a massive Lyme disease problem in Maine and that comes back on us.

“So, coyotes saved us in many ways that we don’t even see and, as a biologist, that’s how I see the value of coyote,” she said.

Deer population down

Whatever the reasons, most agreed that deer populations are unacceptably low in Maine and must be restored.

“Deer populations are currently far below their optimum abundance in most parts of Maine,” Lavigne was reported to have said in March in the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s plan for integrated coyote control.

Lavigne is also SAM’s wildlife biologist.

“In northern, eastern and western Maine, deer populations are critically low, existing at densities only one-tenth what they were 30 or 40 years ago.”

Low deer numbers reduce hunter satisfaction and deprive local economies of much-needed revenue. In some northern areas, they are in danger of disappearing entirely, Lavigne said.

This year, the Legislature adopted Lavigne’s and SAM’s plan for biological control of coyotes.

Lavigne’s plan is not to eliminate coyotes, “a feat that would be impossible to accomplish,” he said.

“Rather, we seek to manage for lower autumn and winter coyote populations to levels that improve survival of white-tailed deer.”

Knowing that coyote densities are reduced prior to winter, the strategy is to use a landscape approach to diminish the number and size of coyote packs, reduce the overall number of the species available to prey on deer in the winter, and to eventually reduce the number of older, more experienced coyotes in the population, Lavigne said.

“We intend to foster development of coyote hunting as an industry that not only provides ample hunting opportunity, but also leads to effective coyote control while contributing to Maine’s hunting-based economy,” he said.

Based on rough estimates, Lavigne said 4,000 to 5,000 must be removed annually to accomplish statewide control.

Eastern coyotes can certainly decimate a deer herd in areas where deer are more vulnerable to the aggressive, large predator that hunts them in packs, said David Trahan, SAM’s new executive director.

Legislative fix for coyotes

Before taking SAM’s helm, Trahan of Waldoboro served Maine as the District 20 senator. He said he initiated SAM’s coyote control plan then.

“As a state senator, the governor approached me about bringing the deer herd back,” said Trahan, a self-employed logger of 28 years and an avowed coyote hunter.

“I went out and did some work with SAM at the time and we initiated this new plan and we’re trying to build on that plan.”

Recreational hunters, trappers and paid Animal Damage Control agents will work to accomplish it, with licensed trappers using foot-hold traps and hunters using baiting, calling, hounds and incidental encounters.

“Control efforts will focus on coyote removal at the landscape level to reduce pre-winter coyote density statewide,” the plan states.

Coyote populations in and near important deer wintering areas in the northern half of the state will be targeted, Trahan said.

Coyotes are “a big problem in deer yards with deep snow,” he said. “That’s the real problem.”

Habitat concerns

Vistein, Kantar and John Glowa, president of the Maine Wolf Coalition, say the real problem is habitat.

Vistein said spruce budworm infestations in the 1980s and forest practices have decimated deer wintering areas in northern Maine.

“Because they have no protection from the cold and the heavy snow and the wind, they have great difficulty surviving,” Vistein said.

“So, it’s been known for a long time in Maine since this happened that our forest practices are affecting the few deer that are struggling up there up north,” she said.

“People need to understand how deer operate and not just have the hate and discontent with coyotes, so it’s got to be balanced and I just don’t think we have the information right now to tell us anything differently that they’re the scourge of the universe,” Kantar said.

“The number of deer is what it is,” Glowa said. “Somebody saying that it is a problem has their own take on it.”

“Whether you kill more coyotes or less coyotes, it’s not going to change the number of deer,” he said. “I would argue that there is no problem.”

“Until people stop destroying their habitat, that’s something we can do something about — protecting and preserving wintering areas,” Glowa said. “That is going to make a difference.”

“We can’t do anything about the weather. Maine is at the northernmost limit of the deer herd and northern Maine is becoming less and less suitable for deer.”

“It never was suitable, anyway, until people cut the forest and opened it up and created farmland and allowed deer to come into this habitat,” Glowa said.

SAM’s response to habitat issues

To answer the habitat issue, on Jan. 21, SAM will announce its new deer management plan and a partnership with Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Trahan said.

“A piece of that is going to be coyotes, but the other parts are going to be habitat, deer feeding and a number of different ways in which we think we can bring the deer herd back,” he said.

Lavigne said that if Maine can maintain high mortality in coyote populations, he believes that will reduce the average age and number of older, experienced individuals. It may also lead to lower incidents of deer predation.

“Older, larger, more experienced coyotes become quite adept at killing deer,” he said.

Coyote 2.0

Trahan and Lavigne say Maine’s coyote is a cross between a coyote and a gray wolf.

They’re larger than their western cousins, which enable them to more effectively fell deer-sized prey.

“Having inter-bred with gray wolves when migrating east, our coyotes acquired some wolf-like physical and behavioral characteristics,” Lavigne said.

“When you talk about how they kill a deer, if you look at what a wolf does, it’s very similar,” Trahan said.

“They work in packs. They’ll take an animal down and it’s not a very pleasant sight when they do. … Certainly, it opens your eyes when you see, not the cruelty, but just the harsh realities of nature.”

Predation primarily by Eastern coyotes and black bears reduced survival of adult deer and young fawns, Lavigne said.

Through the harvesting of forests for wood product production, there’s been a progressive decline in the quality and quantity of wintering habitat since the 1970s, he said.

Severe winters cause greater deer losses due to malnutrition and predation, while the younger-aged forest contains many fewer mature softwoods for deer over winter. This exacerbates winter severity effects, Lavigne said.

To help the deer herd recover in western, eastern and northern Maine, Lavigne recommends implementing a significant and prolonged reduction of coyote predation.

He said Eastern coyote offspring, which are born in April, form the nucleus of coyote packs.

“Like wolves, Eastern coyotes exhibit delayed dispersal, with about half or more of the pups remaining with the pack for most of the winter,” Lavigne said.

“Deer killing efficiency increases with pack size. Hence, reduction in pack size prior to mid-winter may reduce the ability of surviving pack members to kill deer,” he said.

‘Only good coyote is a dead coyote’

That’s what Fern Bosse, and longtime coyote hunters and trappers Jerrold and James Mason of West Paris want to hear.

“The only good coyote is a dead coyote,” Bosse said.

“We did get rid of the wolves, but I don’t see that happening again with coyotes. One thing’s for sure, though, we’ve got coyotes and I’ve been feeding them lead — 165-grain ballistic at 2,800 feet per second,” he said.

Jerrold Mason, 42, and his dad James, 77, are self-employed loggers who live on Curtis Hill Road in Wildlife Management District 12.

No doe permits are issued there. Not that they’ve seen any, but bucks are getting scarce, also. They firmly believe coyotes are the sole culprit.

“If things don’t change soon, there won’t be any bucks, either,” Jerrold Mason said last Sunday.

“Maine went to a bucks-only rule for a couple of years and, since then, the situation’s been ridiculous.”

Like Bosse and Trahan, the Masons said they’ve witnessed coyote predation in packs on deer on their land.

“We’ve had coyotes kill deer right in our front yard,” James Mason said.

“Their population is so tied in with deer that when the deer population goes up, their population goes up, too, and when the deer population goes down, their population follows,” he said.

A registered Maine master guide for 53 years, James Mason recalled one time when a pack of coyotes killed and ate a whole adult deer during the night. He’d left that spot during the daytime and returned the next morning to find evidence of the kill.

“When there’s enough of them around to completely dispose of a grown deer, you’ve got a serious problem,” he said.

Trahan agrees.

“I’ve shot a number of coyotes over the years, especially in the wintertime when I’m harvesting wood,” he said.

“The deer will congregate in the areas where I’m cutting hardwoods to eat the tops. The coyotes will soon arrive, too, and often I have shot coyotes while I was working in the woods to try and give the deer a chance.”

Glowa, however, said IF&W should concentrate on science and stop its war on coyotes.

“The department needs to rein in the public’s attitudes and unsupported hatred of coyotes,” he said.

“I think, certainly, the facts and science don’t support this all-out war against coyotes. They’re not decimating Maine’s deer herd.”

“Predators and deer and moose have coexisted on our planet for hundreds of thousands of years, and there’s no evidence whatsoever this war on coyotes is going to make one bit of difference in the numbers of deer Maine has,” Glowa said.