The County is a rough place for deer.
The region’s agricultural crops are the lifeblood of its economy but are detrimental to the survival of white-tailed deer. The number of deer in northern Maine has been significantly reduced over the last 50 years due in part to commercial forestry operations.
As a result, deer in The County struggle to find adequate cover to survive long, cold, snowy winters.
Now the state is ramping up its efforts to rebuild the deer population through the development of wintering areas, thanks to a recent infusion of funding from the Land for Maine’s Future program. So-called deer yards consist primarily of trees such as cedar, spruce, fir and hemlock, which help form a canopy that provides protection from predators, reduces snow depths and allows the animals to more easily browse for food in winter conditions.
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has begun re-establishing deer wintering areas after Gov. Janet Mills on Wednesday announced the first five projects to be undertaken as part of a $40 million initiative she signed into law in 2021.
That includes the Caribou Stream Deer Area Project, two pieces of property covering 930 acres in Washburn and Woodland. It’s the first project of its kind after the Legislature last year approved a law that opened the door for DIF&W to buy and maintain land specifically for deer wintering areas.
“These parcels have heightened importance because of the limited availability of that type of deer wintering habitat in that part of Aroostook County,” said Nate Webb, wildlife division director for DIF&W.
“It will be managed with deer habitat as the primary priority of both those parcels,” added Webb, who said hunting, fishing, trapping and hiking are among the recreational pursuits that will be allowed on the land, which covers approximately 1 1/2 square miles.
Caribou Stream also is home to a self-sustaining population of native brook trout.
Webb said the asking price for the properties is $695,000. Half the funding will come from Land for Maine’s Future monies and the remainder from other sources.
DIF&W ownership of deer wintering areas will enable the department to manage wildlife habitat without some of the financial or operational limitations faced by most landowners, he said.
“We can be a little bit more creative than most landowners would be able to do and also have a long-term management horizon and a long-term vision because the properties will stay as publicly owned land, as part of our management area system, in perpetuity so we can manage with a long-term goal of promoting deer habitat in Maine,” Webb said.
David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, called the pending purchase of the initial deer wintering area a historic moment.
“The deer population has crashed. Unlike the southern part of the state, northern Maine is lucky to have a few deer per square mile,” he said Wednesday.
“Together, we’ve started down the road of taking control of our destiny as hunters, as conservationists, as it relates to deer and we can together make a difference on bringing the deer herd back,” Trahan said.
DIF&W has hired forester and biologist Dan Hill to head up the deer wintering areas program.
As DIF&W waits for the sale to be finalized, Hill has begun evaluating deer activity and the condition of the Caribou Stream habitat. The department also must consider how to eventually provide public access and parking for the area.
“We are collecting information and starting to think about what the longer term management would look like,” Webb said. “We’re poised and ready to put some of those things into motion as soon as we actually take ownership of the land.”
In the meantime, DIF&W has identified and is pursuing land in key other areas where deer are suffering from a lack of adequate winter habitat. It is reaching out to potential sellers and evaluating offers from interested parties to determine what the next acquisition should be.