Part II: WMA Management In Maine

By Stephen D. Carpenteri

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on Wildlife Management Areas by Journal writer Steve Carpenteri. In his report, Steve seeks to examine the question of whether our Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) in the northeast are, indeed, being managed for wildlife habitat, as was intended.

Ask any biologist or forester in Maine’s Land Management Division what his job is and the answer is inevitably the same: “We manage 95,000 acres on 62 wildlife management areas.” Semantically speaking our state’s wildlife biologists and foresters are charged with managing our WMAs and other public lands. However, Maine’s land managers cut, mow or otherwise manipulate only about 1 percent of those 95,000 acres annually. The majority of our state WMA acreage has matured into climax (i.e., wildlife-empty) forestland in a slow process of unchecked growth that began when most of those lands were first acquired during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, some 80 percent of those acres have not been manipulated by a chain saw or bush hog in over 70 years.

In 2010 Maine received $4.5 million in Pittman-Robertson funding (a tax on guns and ammo, bows and arrows and distributed to states based on hunting license sales) that is to be used “for wildlife habitat purposes” (semantics again) according to John Organ, chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sports Fish Restoration programs, which oversees P-R fund distribution and projects in each state. Since 1939 (when the Pittman-Robertson Act was passed) Maine has received over $60 million in P-R funding in addition to various other grants and funding. An additional 25 percent derived from hunting license fees plus funds derived from timber harvesting operations are all supposed to be returned to our WMAs.

Why are 80 percent of our WMA holdings sitting idle after 70 years of P-R funding? And, where is all this money going if not into its intended purpose of wildlife habitat manipulation on our hunter-funded WMAs?

“Salaries and operating costs,” said John Boland, a regional biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, who noted that even after more than 70 years of P-R funded operations “only about 20 percent of our WMAs are in younger age classes,” the early-successional growth that is most useful and important to the majority of wildlife species. Boland also said that of Maine’s 95,000 acres of WMAs only about 55,000 acres are “operable,” meaning able to be clear-cut, mowed, bush-hogged or otherwise “touched” by land management crews. The remainder consists of wetlands, marshes, fields and roads.

“In recent years there has been broad acknowledgement that the decline in early-successional forest has had negative consequences for a wide variety of species running the gamut from traditional game species to songbirds,” the USFWS’s John Organ said. “Timber harvesting on public lands does present challenges in states where most of the people live in urban areas and do not appreciate or understand the need for active management,” he added. “Bottom line – P-R funds have to be used for a wildlife management purpose – not commercial purposes.”

Unfortunately in Maine, funding generated by hunters to purchase and manage our state WMAs is diverted into salaries for biologists who, in some cases, spend decades on inconclusive studies, mountains of paperwork including grant applications, program reviews and annual reports in addition to road construction and maintenance, bridge and culvert installation, building construction and maintenance, boundary marking, trail maintenance, docks, floats and boat ramps – even garbage pickup – and many other non-habitat projects. Clear-cutting, mowing and other hands-on habitat enhancement work is conducted on fewer than 2,000 acres of the total WMA holdings in the state.

Even more disturbing is that while Maine’s WMAs are paid for and maintained only with hunter-generated dollars they are open to a wide spectrum of recreational users including hikers, bikers, horseback riders, snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, ATV operators, boaters, bird watchers, fishermen, cemetery visitors and anyone else who chooses to visit these areas – for free. Of all these, only hunters pay for the purchase and upkeep of these lands and yet their interests continue to be the least served. Maine’s sportsmen do not need improved roads, culverts, bridges, buildings, docks, floats or ramps to enjoy a good hunting experience, yet their money is being used to support these and other projects that, in many cases, benefit only the state employees who requisition them, enabling them to conduct more studies and more surveys.

Our ground-level wildlife managers are doing their best to improve and enhance wildlife habitat on our WMAs using Pittman-Robertson Act funding when the money finally trickles down to them, but the system is flawed. In his 2010 annual report, Ryan Robicheau, a Lands Management Division biologist in the MDIFW’s Region B, complained that “Funds from the forest harvesting operation on P-R lands are being spent as soon as they accumulate for any eligible expense. In turn the regional staff has been unable to access money for special projects on the WMAs. In addition, the regional staff is not receiving any budgetary information that would enable them to track available amounts each year. A mechanism needs to be implemented that ensures major expenditures needed for the sound management of wildlife management areas are provided for during the year.”

Many programs presently underway on WMAs and designated as “wildlife habitat improvement” projects (more semantics) are designed to provide habitat for species that are illegal to hunt. For example, I recently visited a 65-acre clear-cut on the 5,000-acre Vernon Walker WMA in Newfield that is designed to create and improve habitat for moths and butterflies – neither of which may be hunted! Other WMAs have projects underway to improve habitat for amphibians, songbirds, turtles, reptiles and other species that may not be hunted in Maine. Certainly a variety of species will benefit from any habitat manipulation program, but one would think that the focus of projects conducted on hunter-funded wildlife management areas would be primarily on game birds and animals, projects that would also benefit a wide variety of non-game species, instead of the other way around.

Next month: What can be done to funnel more P-R funds into our WMAs to create more early-successional habitat for maximum wildlife diversity and what hunters and other users of our WMAs can do to help.

Steve Carpenteri has hunted on and observed the changes in wildlife management areas nationwide for over 50 years.

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