Maine hunters could see big changes in deer regulations this fall under a new proposal from the state’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (DIFW) that calls for a sharp increase in the doe harvest in some parts of the state and the purchase of wintering habitat to boost whitetail numbers in others. The habitat purchases would be funded by Maine’s first-ever fee for deer permits.

The state has traditionally issued a free any-deer permit that allows hunters to take one antlered deer or one antlerless deer. Under the plan authorized by a bill that passed the state legislature earlier this month, the DIFW would institute a deer lottery that would allow hunters to harvest both a doe and a buck. The lottery would be free to enter, but hunters who are drawn would have to pay a $12 fee for the permit.

Wildlife managers believe the new fee could raise $800,000 annually for Maine’s deer management fund. That money would be used to purchase properties with good deer habitat in northern, eastern, and western Maine. Deer numbers in those areas have been in decline for more than 20 years. In parts of central and southern Maine, by contrast, a decade of doe harvests that were below the DIFW’s management targets have led to soaring whitetail populations—and the nation’s highest incidence of Lyme disease. Officials hope the new system will get more permits into the hands of proficient deer hunters in the southern part of the state while raising funds to bolster deer populations elsewhere.

The any-deer permit “has been used pretty well, but over time it’s become less effective, particularly in parts of the state with a lot more deer,” state deer biologist Nathan Bieber, told the Portland Press Herald. “In central Maine, the effectiveness has gone down quite a bit.”  

Maine recently tried to juice the deer harvest by nearly tripling the number of available any-deer permits from 68,000 in 2019 to 153,00 in 2021, but last year only 89,000 hunters applied. Anyone who wants to harvest a buck can do so just by purchasing a Maine hunting license—no deer permit required.

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The proposal now requires action by the Legislature’s appropriations committee. It is open to public comment through DIFW’s rulemaking process until May 12. While any regulation that institutes a new fee will inevitably cause grumbling from some hunters, many wildlife advocates have publicly expressed support for the new plan, including David Trahan, the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, who notes that more land in Maine’s Wildlife Management Area system would open more acreage to public access and recreation, while also benefitting a number of species in addition to whitetail deer.  “It’s a big deal,” Trahan told the Press Herald. “I’ve seen the landscape here. In some areas, deer herds just don’t even exist anymore. We may not see [them all] come back in my lifetime, but we’ll have all the tools to do it.”