Michigan’s Deer Herd Flourishes While Hunters’ Numbers Decline

Henry Payne cartoon
Henry Payne cartoon

Whitetail deer will likely be plentiful when Michigan’s firearms season opens on Nov. 15, the result of relatively mild back-to-back winters and a proliferation of fawns. Chances of bagging a big buck will also improve because far fewer hunters will be roaming the woodlands. But their decline in number carries consequences for both wildlife management and the state’s recreation economy.

Stalking whitetails has long been Michigan’s most popular blood sport. Deer permits comprise 90 percent of all hunting licenses issued annually in the state. Some Upper Peninsula schools close for opening day, while local newscasts feature regular "Big Buck" reports.

deer crossing sign

Still, the sale of deer hunting permits statewide has declined by 22 percent since 1998, although there was a slight up tick in 2006.[1] Not only has the absolute number of permits dropped, but so, too, has the proportion of Michigan residents who purchase one.[2]

Michigan is not unique in its loss of hunters. Between 1991 and 2001, the number of hunters nationwide declined about 8 percent, from 14.1 million to 13 million.[3]

The number of deer hunters here peaked in 1998, following an increase of 58 percent between 1960 and 1975, and another 10 percent between 1975 and 1998.[4] The recent decline has been accompanied by the aging of license holders, half of whom are now 41 years or older.[5]

click to enlarge

In response, state officials last year lowered the minimum age to hunt from 14 years to 12 years, and created an "apprentice" license that enables a youth to obtain a hunting license for two years before he or she must successfully complete the safety course otherwise required for a hunting permit. A deer hunt weekend for youth in late September is also scheduled each year.

A proposal to double the cost of a deer license within three years has some within the hunting community worried about further thinning of their ranks. A firearm or archery deer permit now costs $15, a rate last adjusted in 1996. (Seniors pay $6.) House Bill 4624, introduced on April 19th by Rep. Matthew Gillard, D-Alpena, would, if enacted, increase license fees to $18.75 this year; to $22.50 in 2008; to $26.25 in 2009; and to $30 in 2010. The legislation also would authorize a 5 percent "inflationary" increase in license fees for 2012 and 2013.

Currently, the cost of a firearm deer license averages about $20 among the eight Great Lake states.

click to enlarge

License fees are earmarked for the state’s Game and Fish Protection Fund, which partly finances the state Department of Natural Resources. Some 76 percent of the agency’s budget is derived from such restricted funds. Proceeds from a 10 percent federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition also is channeled to state game and fish agencies. To the extent fewer permits are sold each year, less of the earmarked funds are available to the DNR.

Hunting is an integral part of wildlife management. With few natural predators and suited to a variety of habitats, a deer herd will expand rapidly. Whitetails also possess a robust reproductive capacity. Where food is abundant, fawns may begin breeding at 7 or 8 months old, and twins are common. In September 1962, for example, six bucks and nine does were released on South Fox Island in Lake Michigan; in just eight years, hunters harvested 382 deer there.[6]

An overabundance of deer can quickly deplete habitat and create hardships for farmers and fruit growers. Herds also become weakened if allowed to increase unabated. Wildlife biologists thus recommend removing at least one-quarter of a herd each year to maintain a healthy and stable population.[7]

Hunting also has played a critical role in controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis.[8] Researchers have determined that the vast majority of infected deer in Michigan — some 98 percent — have originated from a five-county area. The DNR has instituted extra rifle seasons and unlimited antlerless deer permits to reduce the whitetail populations in Alcona, Alpena, Crawford, Montmorency, Oscoda, Otsego and Presque Isle counties. Subsequently, deer numbers have declined by 51 percent in the areas most affected by the disease.[9]

The DNR has set population goals of 1.35 million whitetails statewide: 350,000 for the Upper Peninsula; 500,000 for the northern Lower Peninsula; and 500,000 for the southern Lower Peninsula. Based on estimates of the current population, the herd currently exceeds the population goal by some 496,000, with 359,000 in the Upper Peninsula; 513,000 in the northern Lower Peninsula; and 974,000 in the southern Lower Peninsula.

Hunters harvested nearly 456,000 deer in 2006, according to state data.[10]

The recreation economy has been hard-hit by the decline in hunting. As the graph below indicates, fewer hunters mean fewer hotel and cabin bookings; fewer restaurant orders; and fewer equipment purchases.

click to enlarge

A variety of factors contribute to the trend — among them, a more sedentary lifestyle. A 2003 Harris Poll, for example, found that recreation requiring physical activity has declined in popularity. When asked to name their favorite leisure-time activities, the largest numbers of adults mentioned reading (35 percent) and watching TV (21 percent).[11] Moreover, the median number of work hours has increased while leisure time has remained flat, as the chart below indicates.[12]

click to enlarge

For a generation accustomed to immediate gratification, hunting may simply require too much time and patience, said Rodney Clute, big-game specialist for the DNR. "It requires planning," he said. "You have to select your sites and receive permission to hunt on certain lands. After all this, you may or may not bag a deer."

Indeed, only 46 percent of hunters statewide harvested a deer in 2006.[13]

There’s no shortage of land on which to hunt, but some sportsmen complain about crowded conditions and poor habitat on state-managed properties. About 87 percent of the animals harvested in 2006 were taken on private lands.[14]

The DNR for years has leased private lands for hunting, but now has only about 10 percent of the acreage it once provided under the Hunter Access Program. Many landowners now prefer to manage the leasing on their own, the better to control who gains access to their property.

"For many farmers, they can receive the same economic gains with a smaller group of hunters with less headaches," said Mark Sargent, the coordinator of the Hunter Access Program.

For some hunters, the last straw was the conservation officers who, seemingly intent on generating state revenue, issue tickets for minor infractions. "Conservation Officers often issue tickets for minor infractions when a warning would suffice," said one commenter on AbsoluteMichigan.com, a Web site featuring news and information about the state. "In the last five years, I have noticed a marked increase in CO presence in the field and a marked decrease in their demeanor. I’m sure that the DNR themselves have driven many folks out of hunting and fishing."[15]

The state instituted hunting regulations in 1859, with the establishment of a seven-month season to preserve deer populations in the southern Lower Peninsula. Prior to settlement, abundant herds of deer roamed the southern regions of the state, where the mix of hardwood forest and wetlands was ideal for whitetails. The mature forests to the north, however, were less conducive to deer, and were mostly inhabited by elk and moose. But as settlement spread, and in the absence of property rights over wildlife, hunting dramatically reduced the number of deer in southern Michigan. Meanwhile, as timber cutting began in earnest in the northern portions of the state, the herds there quickly flourished.

Large-scale commercial hunting prompted the state in 1881 to prohibit the sale of venison beyond Michigan’s borders. Market hunting and commercial sale of venison were banned outright in 1901.

Deer populations fluctuate depending upon weather and other natural factors. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the return of wolves to the Upper Peninsula has not depleted whitetail herds, according to DNR officials. A population of 500 adult wolves could consume 15,000 to 25,000 deer annually.[16] But greater population declines have occurred in the UP due to a shortage of winter feeding areas brought on by an overabundance of animals, according to Clute.

Suburbanization in southeast Michigan actually has increased deer populations; large lots and parks offer grassy areas in which deer like to browse free from predators.

It remains to be seen whether the slight increase last year in the number of hunting permits portends a trend after years of decline. Continued losses would undermine wildlife management and Michigan’s recreation economy.

[1] Frawley, Brian J. "Demographics, Recruitment, and Retention of Michigan Hunters: 2005 Update," Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources, October 2006.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sargent, M.S and Carter, K.S., ed. 1999, "Managing Michigan Wildlife: A Landowners Guide." Michigan United Conservation Clubs, East Lansing, MI.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources. See www.michigan.gov/emergingdiseases/ 0,1607,7-186-25804_25811-75930--,00.html.

[9] Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources. See www.michigan.gov/emergingdiseases/ 0,1607,7-186-25804_25811-75930--,00.html.

[10] Frawley, Brian J., "Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2006 Season," Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources, June 2007. See www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/deer_06harvest_198710_7.pdf.

[11] The Harris Poll, "Different Leisure Activities’ Popularity Rise and Fall, But Reading, TV Watching and Family Time Still Top the List of Favorites," Dec. 8, 2004. www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=526.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Frawley, Brian J., "Michigan Deer Harvest Survey Report 2006 Season," Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources, June 2007. See www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/deer_06harvest_198710_7.pdf.

[14] Ibid.

[15] www.absolutemichigan.com/dig/michigan/should-the-dnr-raise-hunting-license-fees/.

[16] Michigan Department of Natural Resources, "The Impacts of Wolves on Deer in the Upper Peninsula," Aug. 29, 2006.

Post a public comment on this.
View all comments on Mackinac Center articles.