Lee Kantar entered the winter months hoping to conduct survey flights that would help state biologists determine population estimates for moose and deer.

Things didn’t quite turn out that way: While northern moose survey work went off without a hitch, the deer surveying proved nearly impossible. Southern and central parts of the state didn’t get much snow, which is needed to provide contrast when spotting deer from the air.

So why is Kantar smiling?

Because southern and central parts of the state didn’t get much snow.

And Kantar knows that’s great for deer, even if he didn’t get the chance to quantify that fact from a helicopter.

“Statewide, [the mild winter] is going to be huge,” said Kantar, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s top moose and deer biologist. “At the end of the day, with all the things that impact the deer, the amount of snow on the ground is going to drive how our deer are, year after year after year. That’s going to be the driving factor.”

Because Kantar serves as the lead biologist for two of the state’s most iconic game animals, he splits time managing both, and during a late February interview he had interesting things to say about each.

Before a couple of early March storms, Kantar said the state’s winter — particularly in the southern and central regions — was stacking up favorably (for the deer) with the best winters ever.

“Over 60 years, this has got to be in the top three, maybe the top one … for being one of the most mild winters,” Kantar said. “And up north, probably, as well.”

Kantar said that last winter was pretty severe around Bangor until a rapid early warm-up trend provided some respite for deer.

“We had a very lush spring, and that benefited our 2011 harvest, because our deer harvest is going to be much higher than we projected it because our winter shortened up,” Kantar said.

While Kantar hasn’t crunched all the numbers from the 2011 hunting season, he expects that more than 18,000 deer were taken by hunters. That’s a significant increase from preseason projections, which put the number under 17,000.

The early warm-up last year was particularly helpful to fawns, and their survival rate increased. He expects a similar trend this year, as deer didn’t have to restrict their movement as they would have had there been deep snow in most sections of the state.

“Deer can go everywhere [this winter],” Kantar said. “And when deer can go everywhere, they benefit and are going to have increased survival. We’re really setting ourselves up for some really good things.”

In response to a couple of harsh winters and a struggling herd, DIF&W reduced any-deer permits, which allow hunters to shoot a deer of either gender, by 46 percent before the 2011 season. Biologists will finish their preliminary any-deer permit allocation request for 2012 by the end of this month.

While Kantar often hears criticism from hunters who think they could do his job better than he does it, he is able to joke about the constant deer management debate.

“I ordered this winter up to make it real easy for the year,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s always my fault [when it snows and deer struggle], so I’m going to take credit for this winter.”

Moose data vital

For the second-straight year, Kantar spent a lot of time flying, as DIF&W biologists conducted aerial moose surveys in a Maine Forest Service Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter. After spending 100 hours in the air, Kantar is excited about the vast amount of data that he and other biologists were able to collect.

“We’ve done estimates of abundance in [Wildlife Management Districts] 1 through 6, 8, 11 and 19,” Kantar said. “It’s historic for the state. We’ve never had this level of data on moose abundance.”

Last winter’s research covered three WMDs. This winter, Kantar also got the chance to do some composition surveying, which determines the ratio of bulls to cows to calves in a given district.

For several years, state biologists estimated that about 29,000 moose lived in Maine. More recently, former state moose biologist Kim Morris put that number at 60,000-90,000.

Without fully analyzing the new data that has been collected, Kantar feels fairly confident that an estimate of 75,000 moose is accurate.

“One of my biggest concerns is, we have a lot of moose in certain areas, and then we have a lot of areas where we have hardly any moose,” Kantar said.

And although Kantar knows that there are some who will see the 75,000-moose estimate (from the long-standing 29,000) as a reason to automatically increase the number of moose permits that are allocated, he is taking a cautious stance.

“We realize, more than anything, that moose are valued economically for viewing as well as hunting opportunity as well as being on the landscape and just the aesthetic of moose,” Kantar said. “We balance all those things. That’s our job.”

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. He spent 28 years working for the BDN, including 19 years as the paper's outdoors columnist or outdoors editor. While...