Deer: White-tails in the Maine Woods

Physical Characteristics

Maine is home to one of the largest of the 30 recognized subspecies of white-tailed deer. After attaining maturity at age five, our bucks can reach record live weights of nearly 400 lbs. Most adult bucks, however will normally range from 200 to 300 lbs live weight, and will stand 36 to 40" at the shoulder. Does are considerably smaller; they normally weigh 120 to 175 lbs live weight. Newborn fawns begin life at 4 to 10 lbs, but grow to approximately 85 lbs live weight in their first 6 months of life.

White-tails have keen hearing, made possible by large ears that can rotate toward suspicious sounds. They have wide-set eyes, enabling them to focus on subtle movements, while maintaining an excellent sense of depth perception. White-tails have a very keen sense of smell enabling them to sense danger, even when visibility is poor. Deer have long graceful legs, enabling them to cover ground quickly by leaping, bounding, turning and outright running at speeds up to 40 mph. Their trademark white tail, when erected, flashes a danger signal to other deer in the vicinity.

White-tailed deer communicate using a variety of sounds, ranging from explosive "whooshes" when startled, to the barely audible mews and grunts a doe uses to tend to her fawns. Deer are very expressive; they employ a large repertoire of signals using facial expressions and body language. These postures help to maintain the dominance hierarchy within all deer groups. Deer also communicate using odors, which emanate from a number of scent glands. These glands occur between the toes, on the shins, the hock, the forehead, near each eye, and inside the nose. The contents of each gland when rubbed onto a tree or the ground help deer to know who their neighbors are and what each deer is doing at any given time.

Bucks annually produce antlers, which are made of bone. Triggered by day length and maintained by hormone production, antlers begin growing in April, and are nurtured by a velvety outer network of skin tissue and blood vessels. Velvet is shed when growth is complete in late August and September. The hardened, polished antlers remain until they are shed in late December to early March. In white-tails, antlers allow bucks to advertise and demonstrate their dominance; hence they play a role in reproduction. A buck's first true set of antlers normally is grown by age 1 ?. Buck fawns, however, begin growing the antler base at 1 month of age. This base develops into 2 or 3 inch velvet-covered "nubbins" by early winter. White-tailed does sometimes produce antlers, but this is rare. Does that do sprout antlers typically are older (5 to 15 years old); their antlers are usually velvet-covered spikes. Most antlered does remain fertile.

Each year, deer produce two coats of hair, each adapted to seasonal climate. In late spring, deer grow a coat of fine, short reddish hair. This pelage allows ample air circulation and helps the deer to stay cool in summer's heat. During September, deer molt to a highly insulative coat which consists of a dense layer of fine woolly hair under a layer of long hollow brown, gray, and white guard hairs. The guard hairs can be erected to form a very thick insulative coat, which protects against the cold winds of winter. Fawns are born with a reddish-brown coat dappled with white spots. This affords excellent camouflage against detection by predators in the summer. By early autumn, fawns grow the typical winter coat.

Another adaptation for survival is the deer's habit of storing fat for the winter. In autumn, deer accumulate fat under the skin, in the viscera, between the muscles, and in the hollow bones of the legs. This fat layer can comprise 10 to 25% of a deer's body weight by late fall. In winter, fat is reabsorbed to provide much-needed energy to supplement inadequate diets of woody browse.

Natural History

Habitat

Major habitats that provide food and cover for white-tailed deer in Maine are forest lands, wetlands, reverting farmlands, and active farmlands. Forest stands containing little or no canopy closure, wetlands, and reverting and active farmland yield the largest and best forage within reach of deer. However, stands of mature conifers with tree height greater than 30 ft. and crown closure of greater than 60% provide critical winter habitat for deer. Currently, 94% of Maine is considered deer habitat; this excludes developed parts of the state. In practice, even a portion of Maine's developed land is currently occupied by deer. Wintering habitat is more limited in availability, comprising only 2 to 25% of the land base in various parts of the state. Protection of critical wintering habitat is a major focus of deer management activities by the Department.

Food habits

Deer are highly selective herbivores, concentrating on whatever plants or plant parts are currently most nutritious. Finicky eaters, deer opt for variety over quantity, when feeding along in the woods and fields. Deer consume grasses, sedges, ferns, lichens, mushrooms, weeds, aquatics, leaves (green and fallen), fruits, hard mast (acorns, beech nuts, etc.), grains, and twigs and buds of woody plants. Contrary to popular belief, deer consume twigs and buds of dormant trees and shrubs only when more nutritious foods are unavailable. When restricted to woody browse, deer inevitably lose weight. During the course of the year, deer may browse several hundred species of plants. A few are highly preferred; many others are consumed only when the best have been depleted. Overabundant deer populations can reduce the abundance of preferred forages, while causing unpalatable plants to become more common. Extremely abundant deer can literally eat themselves out of house and home. At these times, hungry deer are underweight, prone to starvation and disease, produce fewer fawns, grow smaller antlers, and create increased conflicts with homeowners, gardeners, farmers, forest landowners, and motorists.

Reproduction

The peak breeding season for deer in Maine occurs during mid-November, although some breeding may occur in October and as late as January. The onset of the rut in bucks and estrus in does is controlled primarily by decreasing day length. Does in estrus are receptive to breeding for roughly 24 hours, and if not successfully bred, they will come into heat every 28 days, until early winter. Bucks establish and maintain a dominance hierarchy; typically the majority of does in an area are bred by the most dominant bucks. Gestation period for deer is roughly 200 days, after which well-nourished adult does give birth to twins, triplets, and rarely, quadruplets. Fawn and yearling does typically produce one fawn, if they conceive at all. The peak fawning season in Maine is mid-June. In a typical year, each 100 Maine does will give birth to about 130 fawns. However, early fawn losses tend to be high; only 60 to 80 of these young deer typically survive their first 5 months of life.

Longevity

White-tailed deer can live to 18 years, but few deer in the wild live that long. Does typically live longer than bucks presumably because rutting behavior predisposes bucks to higher losses due to hunting, motor vehicle collisions, physical injuries, and depletion of fat reserves going into the winter. Deer populations subjected to high hunting mortality are comprised of predominantly young deer. Conversely, a greater proportion of deer annually survives to older age classes within lightly hunted herds.

Home Range and Seasonal Movements

Summer home ranges (area that an animal lives within) for deer in Maine are generally 500-600 acres, but can vary from 150 to more than 2,000 acres. Movement by deer from summer to winter range can vary from less than a mile to more than 25 miles, depending on availability and suitability of the winter range. Deer are not generally territorial (defend their home range against intrusion of other deer). However, pregnant does will defend a small birthing area (less than 20 acres) against intrusion by all other deer, for about a month.

Historical Management in Maine

Population and distribution trends

During the past 400 years, ever-changing patterns of human use of the land, predation, climate cycles, and disturbances such as fire, wind and flood have created conditions which either favored or precluded healthy populations of deer in Maine. When Europeans first colonized Maine, white-tails occurred only in the mid and south coastal part of the state; moose and caribou occupied the vast interior forests of the time. During the next two centuries, the climate moderated, forests were logged and/or cleared, and major predators such as the wolf were extirpated. By the late 1800's, deer had colonized all Maine towns. During this time, deer abundance often followed cycles of extreme abundance to scarcity, depending on the amount of re-growth after logging, or after wildfire or insect defoliation opened the forest floor to sunlight. These events never occurred at the same time throughout the state. Hence deer abundance was always (and remains) patchy, depending on local conditions.

Season history

The Maine Legislature, and later the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, has long been involved in regulating the hunting of white-tailed deer. The following were major events:

  • 1830 - First restrictions on deer hunting; season 9/1 - 12/31; no bag limit.
  • 1873 - First bag limit, 3 deer per hunter per year.
  • 1883 - Sale of venison limited to three deer per hunter per year; exporting of venison outlawed.
  • 1886 - Hunting deer with dogs outlawed.
  • 1893-1902 - Scarcity of deer in Maine's southernmost 10 counties leads Legislature to close deer season there.
  • 1895 - Bag limit reduced to two deer per hunter per year.
  • 1906 - Nonresidents required, for the first time, to purchase licenses for deer hunting annually.
  • 1907 - First "bucks only" law; hunters in York and Cumberland Counties restricted to 1 buck.
  • 1913 - Southern Maine restricted to one deer per hunter.
  • 1916 - Taking of deer for provisioning logging camps outlawed.
  • 1919 - Mandatory deer registration begins. Residents must purchase "lifetime" licenses to hunt deer.
  • 1925 - Bag limit set at one deer of either sex, statewide.
  • 1930 - All hunters required to purchase annual hunting licenses, except landowners hunting on their own land.
  • 1939 - Basic two-zone (North and South) system established. Maintained annually until 1983.
  • 1951 - First special archery season established during October, then annually, thereafter.
  • 1967 - Deer hunters required to wear fluorescent orange clothing during regular firearms seasons.
  • 1971 - Deer drives outlawed. Legislature authorizes Department to set deer season dates.
  • 1975 - Department implements first Strategic Plan for Deer. It is updated every 5 years.
  • 1977 - Legislature established that Saturday before regular firearm season would be for residents only.
  • 1981 - Muzzleloader season first established to follow after the firearm season, then annually, thereafter.
  • 1983-1985 - Legislature authorizes Department to create hunting districts and to restrict harvest of antlerless deer, using either-sex days.
  • 1984 - Uniform 4 week firearm season established, statewide. Continues to the present.
  • 1986 - Department implements the Any-Deer permit system, and establishes 18 Deer Management Districts. Permit system continues to the present.
  • 1993 - Legislature authorizes Department to implement controlled hunts for deer in problem areas.
  • 1997 - First expanded archery season implemented, allowing bowhunters to take an extra deer during September in designated areas. Continued in 1998.
  • 1998 - Department implements system of 30 Wildlife Management Districts, to regulate harvest of all hunted and trapped species in Maine.
  • 2002 - Department implements 1st Youth Only Deer Hunting Day preceding the opening day of firearms by 1 week
  • 2006 - Department revises system of Wildlife Management Districts to create 29 units to improve deer management across the state
  • 2008 - Crossbows allowed to be used to hunt deer during the modern firearms season

Harvest trends/statistics

We have been monitoring deer harvests since 1919, using mandatory registration of hunter-killed deer. Peak deer harvests occurred in the 1950's, at a time when deer were relatively abundant (275,000 deer wintered in Maine in the late 1950's), and either-sex deer hunting regulations were in effect. At that time, annual harvests averaged 38,000 deer; a record 41,000 deer was registered during 1951, 1959 and 1968.

During more recent times, overall deer harvests have been lower, ranging from 18,092 to 38,153 deer during the past 15 years. Since 1986 we have been limiting the harvest of does and fawns in an effort to increase the deer population in some regions. One bright note is the buck harvest. Harvests of antlered bucks have been increasing steadily since we began rebuilding the deer herd. Buck harvests today are 50% higher than during 1978-82, the final years of either-sex hunting in Maine. During 2000 and 2002, Maine hunters broke all-time records for buck harvest (21,422 and 20,694 antlered bucks, respectively), exceeding even the buck harvests of the 1950's. Buck harvests have increased because over-all deer populations grew by 60% during the past 15 years. One further bit of good news, production of mature bucks in Maine remains some of the best anywhere in the eastern U.S. Each year, at least 1 antlered buck in 5 taken in Maine is at least 4 ? years of age. By age 4 ?, most bucks attain mature weights and maximum antler size.

Each year, thousands of hunters take to the deer woods in Maine. Hunters averaged 150,000 during the 1950's, then increased to a peak of 215,000 by 1982. During the early 1980's, deer hunters outnumbered their prey in Maine! Since that time, hunters' ranks have steadily diminished, reaching a modern low of 178,000 in 1997. Currently we have about 170,000 to 175,000 deer hunters take to the woods.  Hunting success rate was highest during the 1950's, averaging nearly 25%, overall. More recently, hunter success has averaged 12 to 15%, but has been increasing during recent years.  Hunter success varies considerably depending on method, season and regional area.  

Past management goals and objectives

Prior to 1975, we did not set specific goals or quantified objectives for deer population, harvest, or hunter success rate. Most regulatory actions were made by the Legislature and they were reactions to severe winters, or perceived regional declines in deer abundance. Between 1975 and 1985, MDIFW initiated strategic planning for deer, part of which involved setting publicly-supported goals and objectives. Unfortunately, during this period, we lacked the regulatory authority to succeed in reaching our goal of increasing deer populations and harvests. Under deer of either-sex hunting, we simply lacked the means to effectively regulate doe harvests to the degree necessary to achieve herd increases.

Current Management in Maine

Current management goals and objectives

Since 1986, we have been striving to increase the deer population to within 50 to 60% of the maximum number of deer the habitat can support in winter. This population would allow us to reach maximum sustained harvests, while remaining productive and reasonably available for wildlife viewing. This wintering population objective approximates 270,000 to 330,000 deer, or about 10 deer per sq mi, statewide. We set about fostering deer herd growth primarily by using the Any-Deer permit system to balance overall doe mortality with fawn production in each management district. At the outset, we had a long way to go in attaining this desired population, since the wintering herd averaged only 160,000 deer, in the early 1980's.

Current distribution

Since the early 1980's, the population has increased to 255,000 wintering deer. We have now met our population objectives in about 10 of our 29 Wildlife Management Districts (WMDs). As expected, we have been more successful in achieving deer populations in central and southern Maine, where wintering habitat and other factors were more favorable. We have been less successful in eastern and northern Maine in achieving meaningful herd increases. Today, deer abundance ranges from 2 to 5 deer per sq. mi in the north, to 15 to 25 deer per sq. mi in central and southern areas. Some locations, in which access to recreational deer hunters has been limited or denied entirely, support higher deer populations that are above socially acceptable levels.  These latter areas are above desired population levels, and they are the focus of most deer/people conflicts in our state today.

Management challenges

Improving deer populations in Maine's northern and eastern forestlands will depend on our success in protecting and increasing current amounts of deer wintering habitat. In Maine's heavily developed southern and coastal regions, we will continue to develop innovative approaches to safely manage deer harvests in order to maintain deer populations at levels that provide hunting and viewing opportunity while alleviating negative impacts from deer. In all of Maine, we will need to improve access to huntable land through pro-active landowner relations programs in order to keep deer populations at tolerable levels.

Hunting Tips

  • Scout early and obtain landowner permission, whenever possible.
  • Look for deer in wet areas along streams, swamps and lakes during hot, dry weather.
  • Hunt during mid-day. Big bucks often move at this time.
  • Look for the most nutritious foods currently available in your hunting area. Deer will be nearby.
  • When you locate doe and fawn family groups, bucks will be there too, anytime in November.