Meditations on deer yards

By Kristen Lindquist | Dec 05, 2010
Courtesy of: Maine Department Inland Fisheries and Wildlife

Deer are not an uncommon sight here in Midcoast Maine, although it often seems like a special visitation when one crosses my path in the woods or I pass a group of them staring at me from the roadside. Their coats have shed that warm summer brown, fawns have lost their spots, and their shaggy winter grey blends in now with the stark trunks of bare trees. And most of them are beginning to migrate to their winter deer yards. Yes, migrate — like birds, only not quite so far.

When the snow starts to fall, “yarding up” together in deer yards is how our deer make it through the winter. Deer will travel for miles to gather in yards, made up of dense stands of conifers — fir, spruce, or cedar. They have used these areas for many years, and often for several generations. A deer yard offers crucial protection from cold and wind by virtue of both the sheltering boughs of the trees and the body heat of fellow deer. It also offers safety in numbers: more eyes and ears to detect predators, more hooves to pack down snow cover which can quickly exhaust a deer on its own. And it provides critical browse to help the deer make it through the cold season without starving. Studies in Michigan have shown that a white cedar stand in particular has all a deer herd needs to get through the winter.

To walk around a deer yard in winter is to understand how vital is this habitat to their survival. Although I had heard the term before, I never really understood what a deer yard was until I visited one in western Maine a few winters ago. I had a vision of a bunch of deer hanging out like a herd of cattle in a small field. The reality couldn’t be more different. We wended our way into a thicket of trees within which the snow was all trampled down. Many creatures lived there. (We later saw some of the deer, and also saw tracks where they had been watching us.) Snow revealed the imprints of their beds. Tree tips, leaf buds, even bark had been neatly nipped off everything in sight. In places the snow was pawed bare to reveal something edible beneath. And everywhere, deer trails wound like a maze. It was like stepping into another world. Deer World.

Ron Joseph, a retired wildlife biologist who studied deer in northern Maine, said these trails can be so packed down from constant use that you can take your snowshoes off and walk on them even as three-foot drifts rise around you. He told me that up north, deer yards average about 10 acres per deer in size. Here on the coast where deer populations are higher and more concentrated, a yard might have as little as one acre or less per deer. We all seem to live a little closer together here on the coast. Ron describes the yards as “amoeba-like,” expanding and contracting depending on the weather conditions and that season’s deer population. Deer yards can be up to 5,000 acres in size, although the ones around here as mapped by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are more on the scale of 500 acres more or less. And even these mapped yards can be misleading, because while MIFW tries to work with landowners, especially the big paper companies, to encourage them to protect this key deer habitat, many of these yards have been cut over and thus rendered virtually useless to the deer.

Here on the coast, deer will congregate in a deer yard for three months or so depending on how deep the snow is. Up north, where the snow’s deeper and winter lingers longer, they’ll hang out together for at least four months. That seems like a long time to survive on just spruce tips and beech buds, but for most of the winter a deer’s metabolism slows to what naturalist Richard Nelson likens to “walking hibernation.” They thus need less to sustain them. But even then, a long winter can take a worse toll on a deer herd than a pack of coyotes. Early spring, when their metabolism begins to return to normal but the woods are not yet snow-free and greening, is the hardest time for deer. Older bucks that never fully recovered from the energy toll of the fall rut and fawns are hardest hit by starvation.

According to V. Paul Reynolds, a writer for “Northwoods Sporting Journal,” there were as many as 4,000 deer yards or more in Maine 50 years ago. As of ten years ago, there were around 2,800 deer yards in Maine. This loss of wintering habitat has been felt especially in northern and eastern Maine, where the percentage of forested land base for deer yards has dropped from 10 to less than 2 percent. Much of this is attributed to landowners cutting down the softwood stands that comprised traditional deer yards.

There are several known deer yards of long-standing in the Camden Hills. A yard on Ragged Mountain totals about 270 acres, one on Bald Mountain is about 50 acres, and several yards up the coast in the state park and on or near Ducktrap Mountain are much larger, from 300 to 1,000 acres each. Since they were mapped, however, some of these yards have been at least partially cut, primarily for development, so the benefit of those areas has already been compromised.

Coastal Mountains Land Trust is working hard to permanently conserve the undeveloped land that includes the two deer yards on Bald and Ragged Mountains. In the winter I look up at the snowy ridges and try to imagine the deer clustered up there amid the sheltering spruces, warm in their snowy beds, drowsily nibbling on fir tips, providing each other the comfort of companionship as they successfully endure the winter together, to descend into our fields and yards again come spring.

Holiday season bonus! Here’s a suggested deer/winter reading list for those who like to spend their winter squirreled away next to the woodstove in the company of a good book.

"Heart and Blood: Living with Deer in America," by Richard Nelson (1997)

"Where the Deer Were," poetry by Kate Barnes (1994)

"Winter World: the Ingenuity of Animal Survival," by Bernd Heinrich (2003)

"Winter: A Spiritual Biography of the Season," edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch (2003)

"The Long Winter," by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1940)


Kristen Lindquist is a published poet who works as the development director for Coastal Mountains Land Trust in Camden.



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