This week, the Appropriations Committee of the Maine Legislature voted 10 to 3 to approve LD 852, a $5 million bond that would enable the Land for Maine’s Future Board to purchase lands and-or conservation easements that would protect deer wintering habitat in our state. If enacted, LD 852 would appear before voters in November. On behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, we urge lawmakers, the governor and voters to approve this critical bond.

White-tailed deer have been a mainstay of Maine’s rural economy for at least 125 years. Generations of Maine hunters and wildlife watchers, as well as thousands of nonresidents have depended on Maine’s whitetail populations for outdoor-based recreation. In 1996, Maine had 160,000 deer hunters, and they contributed $200 million to the economy of the state. Today there are fewer hunters, far fewer deer to enjoy, and the northern half of Maine is struggling economically.

Forty to fifty years ago, northern and eastern Maine were considered the places to go to hunt and watch deer. Whitetail populations were healthful and abundant. Although severe winters occasionally cut their numbers, the herd quickly rebounded due to an abundance of quality wintering habitat. In 1970, deer in the northern half of the state had nearly one million acres of wintering habitat to shelter them during snowy, cold winters.

Beginning in the 1970s, deer wintering habitat in northern Maine began a decline that continues today. First, the spruce budworm insect infestation damaged or killed millions of acres of spruce and fir forests, including deer yards. This, in turn, precipitated a flurry of timber cutting as industrial forest owners sought to salvage their damaged softwood timber inventory. Consequently, the coniferous forests that shelter deer are at a 40-year low in the northern part of the state. This reduction in wintering area is a major factor limiting deer populations.

Currently, most deer wintering areas remain in private or corporate ownership, and this poses a serious obstacle to effective deer yard preservation. The coniferous forests that shelter deer are valuable timber resources. They are dynamic, ever-changing ecosystems that require expensive management to keep them in top condition for wintering deer. Deer yard management requires light timber harvesting over relatively small acreages. In addition, timber stands are typically kept uncut for decades beyond their economic maturity in order to benefit deer. This creates an important conflict with private and corporate landowners. Who should pay for the added cost of managing forests for deer? The white-tailed deer is owned by the state and managed in the public trust. Yet private landowners are expected to pay the added costs of timber management for wintering deer. Most landowners are willing to incur some of these extra costs, but they cannot economically justify adding an additional half a million acres of deer wintering area to their high-cost timber management ledgers.

Within the next decade or two, thousands of acres of deer wintering habitat that were damaged by the budworm infestation and-or excessive timber harvesting will have regenerated a new forest that is reaching a growth stage that deer can again use during winter. Our challenge is to find strategies that will protect and enhance these regenerated deer yards and those currently available. We believe one of the most cost-effective approaches is to purchase timber easements that would compensate the landowner for holding and managing deer yards for the public benefits they offer.

Our rural economy is hurting now, but it doesn’t have to remain so. Investment in deer wintering area enhancement today can help restore healthful deer numbers and also benefit countless other wildlife species in the northern half of Maine for all of us to enjoy.

Gerry Lavigne is a retired Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer biologist and Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine board member. David Trahan is executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine and a retired state senator.