For years, the state has struggled to get hunters to kill enough female deer.
And in the world of wildlife management, it can often take years for biologists to determine whether a strategic change is having the desired effect.
However, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife may be changing the narrative on that front thanks to its recent changes to the antlerless deer permit system.
The department exceeded its doe harvest goal for 2022 for the first time in four years, thanks in part to the changes, according to DIF&W deer biologist Nathan Bieber.
Hunters took 13,883 adult does, surpassing the goal of 13,807 that had been established by the department. That came as hunters harvested a record total of 43,787 deer last year, which was an increase of 12.4 percent over the 38,947 killed in 2021.
The state attempts to control the deer population in areas of southern and central Maine where large numbers of the animals in urban areas cause more vehicle collisions and other conflicts with humans.
“We’ve been quite a bit behind in terms of meeting doe harvest objectives,” Bieber told the DIF&W Advisory Committee during its Tuesday meeting in Augusta.
“For the most part, with all the changes that we made, we were pretty close and we’re pretty pleased with the result so far,” he said of key Wildlife Management Districts located in central and southern parts of the state.
Doe harvest objectives had averaged 18.2 percent below the state’s goals over the last six years. During the last 15 years, DIF&W attained its goal in 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2022.
Bieber said the state needs a larger data set to determine whether last year’s harvest success is repeatable under the adjusted antlerless permit system.
“It takes time to evaluate this sort of thing,” Bieber said.
DIF&W believes the rule change, which allowed antlerless deer permit holders to shoot both a buck and a doe, rather than one or the other as under the previous framework, played a role in that development.
Hunters also bagged almost 10 percent more adult bucks (23,802) in 2022 than during the previous year (21,697).
“Seems like hunters were generally more willing to take a doe if it was an additional deer, allowing them to extend their season and keep buck hunting,” Bieber said.
Last year’s promising results mean the state likely won’t make any big changes to its antlerless deer permit system as it sees how things play out over time.
“We’re hoping to get a few quiet years to monitor progress and performance before thinking too much about further permit system changes, but we’re encouraged by how things worked out in year 1,” Bieber said.
Bieber credited the state’s information and education division with helping get the word out to Maine hunters about the antlerless permit system. He hopes further efforts will encourage more hunters to apply for a permit.
This year, Bieber proposes handing out 108,070 antlerless permits, which is about 5 percent higher than last year to deal with the unpaid permits.
The antlerless permit system did cause some consternation for hunters in the form of technical difficulties the state encountered during the launch of the online process. Once those were ironed out, unsuccessful applicants also expressed concern about the system by which the permits were distributed.
Winners had 30 days in which to complete payment for their permit, or forfeited the permit to another hunter, which led to some applicants receiving two permits when others got none.
Starting in 2024, the state plans to require hunters to enter their payment information at the time of completing an antlerless deer application. Their purchase would be executed upon getting a permit.
Instead, the state this year will allocate slightly more permits in certain districts to make up for any potential unpaid permits which will not be put back into the pool of permits for later purchase.
“What we should have then when people go to buy a permit is only permits available in the districts where there’s truly more permits than applicants, so those are going to be districts where there’s thousands of permits left over,” Bieber said.
Those are likely to include WMDs 21 through 25 and 29.
Bieber will be meeting soon with members of DIF&W regional staff and game wardens to develop preliminary recommendations before having a full group meeting where any issues will be ironed out before going to the advisory committee for a vote.