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As we have often reported here, the end of winter is one of the most critical times for wildlife, deer in particular. This winter was especially harsh on land-based animals because extended periods of deep snow inhibited movement and that made finding food more difficult. Now the animals are in their worst condition of the year, with fat reserves depleted and pregnant does struggling to keep themselves (and their unborn fawns) alive.
The MDIFW has said that this has been the worst winter in 50 years and that the deer herd (and any-deer hunting permits) may well decline as a result.
To those people who have spent time in the outdoors this winter, it will come as no surprise that this year is on track to be one of the most severe winters for deer in the last 57 years, according to Lee Kantar, the MDIFW’s top deer biologist based in Bangor.
“We will need to brace ourselves for a large decrease in Any-Deer permits as well as a reduced harvest in 2008 in order to compensate for an expected increase in winter mortality,” Kantar said.
The department has been monitoring the effects of this year’s winter on the deer population by completing weekly checks at weather collecting stations at 28 locations throughout the state. The data are compiled and compared to past years to determine the severity of the winter and what its impacts are on the deer population in different parts of the state.
The Winter Severity Index is based on a calculation of snow depth, deer sinking depth and ambient temperatures, according to Kantar.
“The biggest driving factor is snow depth,” Kantar said. “The deeper the snow the more it restricts mobility and taxes a deer’s energy budget.”
Deer that are yarded up mostly rely on fat reserves from the previous fall to survive the winter. Good deer yards help slow the downhill slide of fat reserve use by providing thermal protection and some limited food sources.
“The longer that winter stays and the later it takes for spring to arrive and green up, the harder it will be for deer to hang on,” Kantar said. “Last year’s fawns are very susceptible this time of year because they have not had time in their young lives to maximize body condition and size. They were still growing during fall so they would not have had the benefit of putting on much additional fat for the winter. It will be a brutal winter for them.”
According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine’s deer herd is facing many threats as a result of this year’s harsh winter. Deep snow and a lack of food are bad enough, but another major threat is “man’s best friend.”
Members of the Maine Warden Service are reporting a number of dog-versus-deer situations in which household pets are threatening and injuring or killing deer.
“Deer throughout the state are starving and are seeking food near roadways and in neighborhoods,” according to Gregory Sanborn, acting colonel of the Maine Warden Service. “Because they are so hungry, in many instances the deer are too weak to run or put up a fight. When they come into contact with dogs the deer are getting killed or hurt.”
Sanborn said dog owners are reminded that it is against the law to have a dog off of a leash and not supervised. Dog owners face a minimum $500 fine if found in violation of the state’s leash laws.
“For the safety of your pets and the protection of the state’s deer herd, keep your dog on a leash and away from deer or deer yarding areas,” Sanborn said. “The danger is too great for both the dog and the deer. We will be writing summonses to people whose dogs are in violation of leash laws.”
Even though it’s common knowledge that most household dogs that are allowed to run loose (primarily at night) are likely to spend most of their time chasing deer. In fact, it’s the rare rural homeowner who doesn’t know of at least one neighbor’s dog that is let out after dark and is allowed to roam the woods till daylight. (Cat owners are just as guilty for the damage cats do to birds, squirrels and small animals, but that is another story!) Some dogs are happy to run around knocking over trash cans or raiding chicken coops, but many more find their way to the nearest deer wintering or yarding areas (often via well-packed snowmobile trails) and raise havoc with the weakened, hungry animals.
What’s interesting about all this is that many folks who regularly visit deer yarding areas to see how the animals are doing don’t realize that they are providing easy access to these areas for dogs and other predators. In fact, once a trail is firmly packed anyone (including you and me) can walk right into a deer yard without snowshoes or skis. These trails are as solid as a Main Street sidewalk and can easily support an entire family group of coyotes, dogs or anyone else who wants to gain access to a deer wintering area. Once a pack of dogs or coyotes enter the area the results are predictable and none too favorable for the deer.
Just recently I heard of a deer yard that had been nearly cleaned out by “coyotes,” but there’s a rub there, too. It is often impossible to tell the difference between a 40-pound dog’s track or a 40-pound coyote’s track. It may be human nature or simply a natural grudge to blame coyotes for every dead deer found in the woods, but if the only proof is a track in the snow there is room for reasonable doubt.
Truth be known, I hunt deer in several states each year and, from September through February, I see more roaming dogs than I do coyotes. In fact, most years I see no coyotes but always plenty of dogs (some feral, some obviously house pets complete with orange collars and brass name tags).
We can’t do much about the effects of coyotes on yarding deer, but if you own a pet dog, do your part and snap its collar to a leash when you let him out at night. Fines and legalities aside, the deer herd needs the help right now!
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