MAINE - Although open water fishing continues on many Maine waters through the fall months, most sportsmen are busy now transitioning into hunting seasons. Bear hunting - thanks to the voters' rejection last November of a ban on bear hunting with bait, dogs and traps - got off to a quick start in late August. The last week of September put the first hunters in the woods in pursuit of moose, and this past week, moose hunters were in the woods for their second week.
October ushers in other opportunities for hunting grouse, woodcock, ducks, geese and other game.
But the whitetail deer is Maine's most popular game animal and nearly 200,000 hunters will try to attach their tags to deer sometime this fall. In some parts of Maine, the success of deer hunters has become more important to nonhunters than to the hunters themselves.
Not so long ago it seemed as if many Mainers valued deer and were afraid of hunters. Now that's being reversed.
As deer populations in southern and coastal Maine climbed to historic levels over the past two decades, people began to worry about deer problems, including vehicle collisions and damage to farms and gardens. But no single issue has raised both awareness and concern about the growing deer population as much as Lyme disease, which is transmitted by deer ticks.
The connection between deer, deer ticks and Lyme disease has become well known as 918 cases were reported in Maine from 1990 through 2003. Last year, close to 200 cases were reported, and this year state officials expect even more.
It's also become clear, in part because of Lyme disease research in Maine, how important it is to control the deer population and what a critical role hunters play in that process.
Yet more than 100 towns restrict or ban firearm discharges in some areas, and tens of thousands of acres of private land are now posted against hunting. But without hunting and with mostly mild winters, deer in some areas have increased to more than 100 per square mile. A tolerable level for both people and deer is around 15 per square mile.
"In a lot of towns that have real deer tick problems, hunting is not allowed," says Mary Holman, a researcher with the Lyme Disease Research Laboratory at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. "So that's a problem, because the herd is not being controlled."
Lyme disease is not the only concern. Thanks to growing wildlife populations, better roads and faster cars, any driver anywhere might hit a deer, moose, bear or other animal. Even in Portland, 51 drivers hit a deer in the previous five-year period, and six collided with moose.
And the best (or worst) chance of hitting an animal on a Maine highway is right now. Nearly half the crashes involving animals take place from October through December, when deer and moose are breeding. November is the most dangerous month for deer collisions, although May, June and July are the peak months for moose collisions.
Most crashes occur after dusk or in early morning. Moose are hardest to spot, because they stand taller than most headlight beams and their red retinas don't reflect light as the white retinas of deer do. While moose crashes are more dangerous, drivers hit deer nearly six times more often. From 1999 to 2003, three people were killed and 783 injured in deer collisions. The economic impact of deer crashes from 1999 to 2001 was estimated at $47 million, with the average cost of a crash at $3,800.
Aroostook, Piscataquis and Franklin counties have the greatest number of moose crashes per mile of road, but its Maine's most urban counties - Cumberland, Penobscot, Kennebec and York - where the most deer crashes occur.
Auburn recorded the most deer crashes, 237, of any Maine town in the past five years, including 36 in 2003. Scarborough and York shared the top spot in 2003 with 45 collisions each.
Maine's deer crashes rose steadily from 1980 to 1998, when they peaked at 4,516. Since then, they've declined, dropping to 3,356 in 2003. The decline could be the result of a number of factors. The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has been working hard to decrease deer populations in central and southern Maine by giving hunters more opportunities to kill does and by expanding the special archery season.
Hunting Heritage Program
The purpose of the new program is to inform the people of Maine (especially nonhunters) about why they need hunting and hunters, including an explanation of game management strategies and discussion of specific problems associated with hunting and game management.
One important element of the program is an annual media kit. This kit is designed to help the press deal with the often complicated and specialized information surrounding hunting issues in Maine.
The 2004 media kit continues to be available on SAM's website www.samcef.org in the section labeled "Hunting Heritage Program." It is available at that site to the general public as well as the media. The kit provides a great deal of information on hunting and game management issues, focused on the whitetail deer.
The 2005 media kit provides new information including a forecast of the 2005 deer hunting season, fact sheets on Lyme Disease and Chronic Wasting Disease, the contributions of hunters to conservation, statistics demonstrating that hunting is a very safe sport, an announcement of the schedule of fall youth hunting days, and this article explaining why Maine needs hunting and hunters.
In order to address problems like Lyme disease, all Maine citizens must be aware of the role that hunting plays in the management of deer. "Hunting is the only significant management tool that we have at our disposal," says Gene Dumont, DIF&W's supervisor of regional wildlife biologists. "All of the other things that are at our disposal are short-term attempts to try to protect your property. The only long-term solution is managing deer at appropriate levels and hunting is our only tool to do that."
Much of that activity takes place in the state's rural areas where the impact is far greater than it would be in Maine's cities.
Statewide it's not that large, says Charles Colgan, an economist at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine, "but it's still a pretty big and important way to make a living in some parts of Maine that have little or nothing else."
Add up the impact of moose, deer, bear, small game and bird hunting, and "it ends up being a very significant impact on the economy," says Richard Davies, senior policy advisor to Governor John Baldacci.
"We sometimes miss the fact that we have places in eastern, northern and western Maine that have very marginal economies," Davies says. "They've seen a lot of their industries leave or become much less significant. What has happened is that hunting, along with a number of other activities, has come in to fill or partially fill that void. And hunting is perhaps one of the most significant of all of those.
For Maine, especially rural Maine, there are two challenges. First, to hold onto the current economic activity that hunting generates. Then, to try to capitalize on Maine's very real advantages to capture a bigger share of the hunting market.
"What's at stake here is the competitive advantage that we have against other places," Colgan says, "and if we lost that, people will simply go elsewhere." In recent years, hunting has not been a growth industry, either in Maine or in the nation. The number of hunting license sales in Maine peaked in 1982 at 235,198 and then began dropping. Sales lowered to 207,436 in 1998.
Since then they've edged up to 213,415 in 2003, but have fallen back down to 211,287 last year. Add in the hunters with complimentary licenses (4,167), and Maine had 215,454 licensed hunters last year.
License sales to nonresidents also seem to have stabilized. After peaking at 44,076 in 1989, they've averaged 38,475 over the past decade. Last year's sales were slightly above average at 39,342. So Maine enters this hunting season with a very dedicated core of hunters. Holding onto them and attracting others from the national pool of 13 million hunters depends on several factors, including abundance of game and amount of land accessible for hunting.
Ironically, Maine's deer herd is most accessible in the northern areas of the state where whitetail populations are diminished, while the areas in southern Maine that are over-run with deer offer far fewer places to hunt. This is a problem that will continue to be addressed, through this new Hunting Heritage Program and in other initiatives.
Landowners can be part of the solution by opening their land to hunting, especially to those hunters who are thoughtful enough to ask permission.
Their crusade over the past half century is considered one of the most successful safety campaigns ever conducted. With more than 200,000 hunters fanning out across Maine's fields and forests in 2004, there were only ten hunting incidents and the first fatality in three years. Statistically speaking, nonhunters have even less reason to worry. Since the state started keeping such records in 1966, only 14 nonhunters have been hurt in hunting incidents here. Since 1990, only one nonhunter has been injured, and that injury did not even occur in the woods.
In 2001, a Peru woman was hit by flying glass when her neighbor illegally fired at a deer feeding on some apples. The bullet ricocheted off the ground, and shattered her living room window. Because of his previous record, he was prosecuted as an armed career criminal and sentenced to 12 ½ years in federal prison.
"It's definitely one of the safest, if not the safest outdoor sports in Maine," says Mike Sawyer, DIF&W's Safety and Vehicle Coordinator.
No one wants even one hunting incident, much less a fatality. But when looking at the statistics, it's important to remember how many lives have been saved and how many injuries avoided.
From 1944 to 1953, 123 people were killed in hunting incidents and 417 were hurt. And that's with an average of only 141,000 hunters. Compare that to 1994 - 2003, when Maine averaged 215,347 hunters and just 6 people died and 100 were hurt.
In fact, in the state of Maine during this past year (2004), there were 194 vehicular fatalities, 19 homicides, 18 fire fatalities, 10 vehicular - pedestrian fatalities, 10 ATV fatalities, 7 snowmobiling fatalities (winter 2004-5), 6 boating fatalities, 4 moose vehicle fatalities and 1 hunting fatality.
Maine's wildlife managers at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are nationally recognized for their initiatives in getting the public involved in their work, especially in their planning processes.
"Maine's approach to wildlife management is highly regarded," says John Organ, wildlife chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "They have by far the best planning process and have innovated an approach that develops management systems that chronicle how species will be managed. No other state has such an advanced approach."
These facts allow us to be confident that Maine's wildlife will continue to be well managed, in a partnership of state agencies, conservation organizations, and the public.
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