Monday, November 20, 2006

Maine: Lynx, deer heard in North Woods debate roles


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Canada lynx and whitetail deer tend to keep to their own parts of the forest.

Lynx favor the dense undergrowth, and the tasty snowshoe hares that live there. Deer, on the other hand, retreat each winter into older, shaded patches of forest to escape the wind, the deep snow and the coyotes.

The animals do have one thing in common, however: Both have been thrust into the struggle over the future of Maine's North Woods.

Wildlife advocates said this month they will sue the federal government to formally protect northern Maine as critical habitat for the lynx. And state officials said last week they are considering stronger protection for deer wintering areas that are facing increased logging pressure.

Protection of wildlife habitat has been an issue in the Maine woods for decades, but tensions are rising now with changes in forestland ownership and new development pressures.

Millions of acres in Maine have changed hands in the past 10 to 15 years as paper makers sold off huge parcels to investment companies that are seeking financial returns from the wood, not just a steady supply of pulp.

"Now you've got a whole different corporate structure in much of northern Maine," said Ken Elowe, director of resource management at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. "A lot of (new owners) have some fairly aggressive wood needs."

Development pressure also has created tension. Many see Plum Creek Timber Co.'s plans for two resorts and nearly 1,000 house lots in the Moosehead Lake region as the first of many remote landscape-scale projects that could fragment the huge expanse of wildlife habitat in the state's 10.5 million acres of unorganized territories.

It's impossible to predict how, but efforts to protect habitat for lynx and deer, among other species, are expected to play a role in shaping the future North Woods. It's happened before.

The Furbish lousewort, once thought to be extinct, in 1976 became the first plant to be declared endangered in Maine, and it helped kill the proposed Dickey-Lincoln hydroelectric power project on the St. John River in Aroostook County.

"It was one of the first issues where an endangered species stopped a major project," said Mark McCullough, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Old Town.

Not many plants or animals have that kind of power. The Furbish lousewort was special because destroying its habitat on the banks of the St. John would have clearly meant extinction.

"It's an endemic species found nowhere else in the world, so Maine has the sole responsibility for protection," McCullough said. "The only case where we can deny a project is where it jeopardizes the continued existence of the species, and those are very rare."

Neither the lynx nor the deer is expected to have the kind of impact the lousewort did. But each is the focus of growing concern because of pressures on their distinct habitats.

Canada lynx, an elusive cat with tufted ears, is listed as threatened on the U.S. Endangered Species list.

Northern Maine has the only breeding population in the Northeast for one simple reason: an abundance of hares. The hares arrived in large numbers after extensive clearcutting of timberlands in the 1970s and '80s. Clearcutting leads to dense undergrowth which provides food and shelter for the rabbits.

The Fish & Wildlife Service earlier this month rejected a proposal to designate northern Maine as critical habitat, a move that would add a layer of regulatory protection. The agency said continuing to work with cooperative landowners here would be more beneficial to the cats.

Conservation groups pledged to fight that decision in court, saying the added protection is crucial given the large-scale development plans taking shape around Moosehead Lake.

According to McCullough and other biologists, the biggest threat to lynx habitat may be that state restrictions now limit clearcutting, slowing the production of new habitat.

Development is not yet a threat to the lynx in Maine, according to McCullough. "But if the type of development that is being proposed around Moose-head Lake were to spread much more widely through northern Maine, that would be of great concern to the Fish & Wildlife Service," he said.

Deer wintering areas, unlike lynx habitat, is directly threatened by logging practices.

Northern Maine is a hostile place for deer, said Dan Harrison, professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine at Orono. They essentially starve during the long, snowy winters and can't afford to expend energy running through deep snow to escape predators. In order to survive until spring, deer gather in wintering areas where mature spruce, fir and hemlock provide shelter from deep snow and cold winds.

While deer are not considered an endangered species, the northern wintering areas get a rare level of state protection because of the animal's popularity, both with hunters and non-hunters, Harrison said. "Poll after poll has shown that deer are the most popular animal in Maine."

The state has formally restricted cutting in some wintering areas through protective zoning. But it also has a network of deer yards that it protects informally by negotiating voluntary agreements with landowners. It's those habitats that have recently been cut down by newer landowners, leading some to call for more regulation.

The issue came up last week when the Natural Resources Council of Maine criticized Plum Creek Timber Co. for cutting so-called deer yards last winter. The company has since voluntarily stopped, its manager said.

The problem goes beyond any one company, according to Elowe and others in Maine's Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Department. Now, in light of the changing ownership of the lands, the department is considering more formal protections, Elowe said.

Patrick Strauch, executive director of The Maine Forest Products Council, which represents Maine's large timber company owners, said landowners have become sophisticated about protecting habitats for a variety of species. And they are working with the state on the deer issue, he said.

"IF&W believes it needs more deer wintering habitat areas and we're trying to find out how much is enough."

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: 061119wildlife.html

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