AUGUSTA, Maine (Reuters) - Maine officials unveiled a plan on Thursday to beef up the state's dwindling deer population, including paying hunters to kill more coyotes in affected areas.
The declines in the state's whitetail deer population have been occurring for decades and will require concerted efforts on several fronts, not just predator control, for deer to bounce back, Governor Paul Le Page said at a news conference.
Severe winters, fewer and poorer quality deer wintering areas known as deer yards, poaching and car collisions, along with predation, have contributed to the problem, he said.
"We can't just blame this on coyote and bear," he said.
The state now has an estimated 127,000 deer, officials said, down from 300,000 a decade ago.
Bear likely number about 30,000, and there are about 20,000 coyote, according to the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Maine hunting organizations have been asking for a stronger herd-management plan for some time. Of the state's 1.2 million residents, some 146,000 are hunters, and another 30,000 hunters come from out of state each year.
Deer hunting provides an estimated 4.500 jobs, said Chandler Woodcock, commissioner of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The new program, which would allow hunters to lure coyotes with bait and hunt with dogs, is not a bounty, Woodcock said.
"We're not talking about a wide-scale effort," he said.
Hunters will be sent into areas with a known problem and paid a per-diem rate as well as some mileage costs, he said.
"With fuel costs what they are, we can't expect people to spend their own time and money driving long distances into remote areas and not get compensated," he said.
Conservationists caution that the role of predators is limited.
"Very sustained, targeted hunting of coyotes in deer yards where there has been documented predation can be effective in saving a few deer," said Sally Stockwell, director of conservation for the Maine Audubon Society.
"But broad-scale hunting of coyotes has been proven to be ineffective over and over again," she said. "Juveniles just move into the region and take over."
The problem of declining deer herds is extensive in the northern, western and Down East regions of the state, while deer are still plentiful in the southern region.
Last year, 20,063 deer were shot and killed by hunters in Maine, an 11 percent gain over 2009, officials said.
State officials estimate the new program will need an additional $100,000 per year.
The Inland Fisheries and Wildlife department already encourages hunting of coyotes, working with sportsmen's groups and providing road kill as bait.
Also, the state legislature recently extended the coyote season for an added two months, from December 16 to August 31.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jerry Norton