AUGUSTA – Sportsmen applauded recent efforts to protect winter deer habitat on Friday but predicted stiff battles in Maine courtrooms and legislative chambers over trapping and land-use issues during the coming year.
Speakers offered a mixed bag to the hunters, fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts gathered at the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s annual meeting, held at the organization’s new conference center in Augusta.
On one hand, Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reported slow but steady progress negotiating deals with owners of forestlands that are key to deer survival amid the bitter cold and deep snow during more typical northern Maine winters.
But they said the state continues to struggle to guarantee public access for hunting and other traditional sports.
The latest “deer yard” deal, announced late Thursday, establishes voluntary wood harvest management agreements on 32,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land in Somerset, Franklin and Piscataquis counties.
Environmental groups have repeatedly targeted Plum Creek in recent months for harvesting in areas identified as deer yards. The Natural Resources Council of Maine, for instance, is seeking to repeal Plum Creek’s certification as practicing sustainable forestry based, in part, on the company’s record in deer wintering areas.
Gene Dumont, wildlife management supervisor with DIF&W, acknowledged that his department has struggled to protect deer yards amid the changing landscape of ownership in Maine’s commercial forests. The department had worked out deer management agreements with many of the large timber companies. But the management agreements were voluntary, and new owners have been under no obligation to limit harvesting in the groves of densely packed, adult conifers that provide deer with protection from the elements and predators during winter.
But Dumont and others said Plum Creek, which has bought nearly a million acres in Maine since the late 1990s, should be recognized not only for agreeing to manage 32,000-plus acres for deer, but also for stipulating that any future owners of the land be bound by the same agreement for at least five years.
“It’s been an arduous process and taken several years to get here, but we feel good about this program,” said Paul Davis, general manager for Plum Creek who joined Dumont on a panel discussion of deer yards.
In a statement, NRCM representatives downplayed the significance of the voluntary agreements.
“Plum Creek has leveled deer yards after agreeing not to in the past,” said Cathy Johnson, NRCM’s North Woods project director. “They could walk away from this agreement just as they have walked away from previous agreements.”
In other news from Friday’s SAM gathering, DIF&W Commissioner Roland “Danny” Martin said his department would see a slight increase in funding each year under the two-year budget proposed by Gov. John Baldacci on Friday.
Biologists also reported that kill numbers from last fall’s deer season appear healthy and on target. And the head of the Maine Warden Service said landowner relations will be a top priority for wardens during the next year.
The mood was not always upbeat amid the sportsmen, however.
Several speakers predicted that a lawsuit filed in federal court by the Animal Protection Institute could have dramatic impacts on the state’s sporting community.
California-based API is seeking a court injunction ordering Maine to halt all animal trapping in areas inhabited by bald eagles, Canada lynx and gray wolves, all of which are federally protected species.
At least four lynx and two eagles have been inadvertently trapped in recent months in Maine. Most of the animals were released without serious harm, although one of the eagles had to be euthanized.
The group charges that Martin and DIF&W officials are violating the Endangered Species Act by tolerating incidental capture of eagles and lynx.
Tony Celebrezze, the director of state services for the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, said his organization has filed for intervenor status in the case to help fight against groups he accused of “exploiting” the courts in order to outlaw trapping. Once they have achieved that goal, the groups will target hunting or even fishing, he predicted.
“What’s to stop them from going after fishing where there are endangered sturgeon in the water?” he said.
API representatives and their supporters in Maine have said they are only trying to force Maine to comply with federal laws protecting those species.
Several speakers predicted that hunters, snowmobilers and all-terrain vehicle riders will continue to lose access to land in Maine unless something drastic is done. SAM and other groups are proposing a variety of access-related bills in the current legislative session, including one that would force the state to replace any acreage closed off to traditional uses.