ACADIA NAT’L PARK — Lately the most frequent “predators” of deer on Mount Desert Island have been motorized vehicles. But for several years in the 1960s, before coyotes migrated to the island, Acadia National Park rangers used rifles and live traps to fill the role of natural predators and cull the herd.
Twenty years earlier, the 1940s were a boom period for the deer population, after a state law closed the island to deer hunting in the early 1930s. In 1947, park staff began to worry that the park could not sustain the deer population. Staff noticed “browsing pressure” in some areas, as well as deer “suffering from malnutrition,” a 1947 report stated.
Then came the fire of 1947, with its long- and short-term effects. From mid-October to mid-November, about 17,188 acres burned on the eastern side of MDI, most of them in the park.
In the short term, many animal populations suffered. The fire took a toll on gray squirrels and minks, according to a 1960 article in the Journal of Mammalogy by Richard Manville. The park saw in increase in porcupines, which before the fire were rare. Red foxes increased due to an explosion in small bird and mammal populations. Moose became regular fall visitors for a time in the mid-1950s. And the deer flourished as the young hardwood forest that grew back after the fire offered the animals their favorite foods.
A decade after the fire, park studies reported that the deer population had outgrown the food supply in the burned area, making winter browsing difficult. By 1956, malnutrition was rampant. A state study conducted the same year recommended “that Mount Desert Island be opened to deer hunting” to prevent the starvation of deer.
“White-tailed deer, long a problem on the island, have continued to increase in most areas. There is still no legal hunting on the island,” wrote park naturalist Paul G. Favour in 1957, estimating the MDI deer population at between 1,000 to 1,500 individuals.
In 1960, the park made the controversial decision to reduce the deer herd by live trapping and shooting, “to bring the starving herd into proper balance with nature,” explained the Bar Harbor Times in Nov. 1965.
Live trapping was difficult and costly; shooting was found to be an effective method of culling the herd. The work was done by park rangers in the winter, when the park was used less by the public.
The Times supported the park’s effort to cull the herd. In Dec. 1960, reporter Chuck Shea went out in the field with Favour to document the damage of the overpopulated herd, and “so I could see for myself what the charts told,” Shea wrote.
“On the trip I was amazed to see trees that didn’t get a chance to grow, and ones that had grown but are deformed and partially dead,” Shea wrote. He described shrubby maples that “were all browsed down except for the one shoot in the center, which somehow happened to survive. This showed that the deer had very little left to eat on the shrub, and it would be hard times to come if they continued this rate of browsing.”
Not everyone was supportive of the park’s deer herd management, however. Some letters to the editor in the Times expressed distrust of park rangers. Howard Merchant Jr. and Lwellyn Merchant wrote in March 1963 that their dog was shot by park rangers while the Merchants were hunting rabbits in the park with the dog.
“Did the ranger kill the dog maliciously?” they asked in the letter. “What kind of man is he? This episode of shooting has not done very much to endear him to the public, nor has the Park’s public image been improved.”
The Times went on to document the deer program through the years.
“When in the field, the rangers attempt to pick out the deer that look like they’re starving. The healthy ones are left alone,” the newspaper reported in 1965. “They work Monday through Friday during November and January, skipping December, which isn’t a good month to find deer.” Rangers posted signs on all trails and roads in the park to warn people when they were shooting.
“The decision to reduce the herd was far from being a popular one. People do not like to see ‘their’ deer killed,” the Bar Harbor Times acknowledged towards the end of the culling, in 1967. “And National Park personnel committed to the idea of conservation and protection of wildlife suddenly found themselves cast as hardened villains sighting down rifle barrels at the defenseless creatures. But the job had to be done.”
In the end, 900 deer were removed from the park between 1960 and 1968, as reported by Supervisory Park Ranger Roy Stamey.
The lowest recorded population of deer on MDI was in 1968 immediately following the culling. A 1976 annual wildlife report by Stamey estimated the population at around 725.
Since then, infrequent deer population studies have been done. The most recent was a radio-collar study done between 1992 and 1994, which estimated that the deer population had declined since 1980. Mortality was attributed to coyote predation and vehicle collisions. Researchers also speculated at the time that poaching and predation by unleashed dogs could have some affect on the population.
“We don’t have any current research since 1990s,” park public affairs specialist Christie Anastasia said Monday.
The reason studies haven’t been a priority, she said, is that park staff “haven’t seen signs of damage due to deer browse. We know our forests are healthy.”