Falling hunter numbers in Michigan among several challenges managing deer

Bovine Tuberculosis, urban sprawl, predators, and changing weather patterns are all issues facing Michigan's management of its white-tailed deer population. 

But the primary challenge the Department of Natural Resources is facing is its declining number of hunters. The wildlife management specialist with the DNR said the issue has never been this bad.

"That's a primary challenge that we're facing that, again, we've not really been facing to this magnitude in the past," Chad Stewart said during the Natural Resources Commission's meeting last week.

In the early 2000s, Michigan had over 800,000 deer hunters. In the 20 years since, that number has fallen to approximately 550,000 hunters - and it's only going to fall further. During Stewart's presentation on the Deer Management Initiative, he said the decline in hunters is expected to continue over the next 10–15 years. 

Meanwhile, Chronic Wasting Disease is expected to spread to more counties, while development sprawling from Southeast Michigan continues to restrict the number of places where hunters had access to help manage the deer population.

And the issues aren't uniform across the state. Both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas face their own unique conundrum over the best way to manage their deer populations. Changing Aspen growth is affecting the Lower Peninsula while wolves and coyotes add their own complexity to the Upper Peninsula. 

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All these variables add up to a consequential puzzle for the DNR. According to Stewart, much of next year will be spent overhauling the traditional model the department has used for managing deer.

"So there are a whole host of challenges that we're facing here in Michigan that are quite unique compared to our history," he said.

Hunter trends in Michigan

The drop-off in the number of Michigan hunters has been dramatic in recent years. Stewart said the trend will continue based on the age of those who hunt in Michigan. 

According to the DNR's 2022 deer harvest survey, the number of youth hunters has declined since 2013 by 37%, despite the state removing the minimum age requirement to hunt. Meanwhile, deer harvest rates for antlerless deer plunged by 21% from 2021 to 2022 and 9% for antlered deer.

"The decrease in harvest of deer generally paralleled declines in hunter numbers and hunting effort," the survey said.

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That's a problem for deer management as older hunters continue making up a larger share of the total number of people applying for licenses to hunt in Michigan. 

Looking at the DNR's harvest report summary, it shows 20,000 fewer deer were killed during the regular firearms season in 2023, compared to 2022. 

Chronic Wasting Disease

Michigan identified its first case of CWD of 2023 in Ogemaw County in October. It was the 251st positive case to be confirmed in the state since the disease first arrived.

Tracking CWD is tricky because it takes a long time for the illness to reveal itself. The disease takes months to incubate before symptoms start to appear. 

In tracking for CWD cases, the DNR takes a proactive approach - choosing to surveil locations where the illness hasn't yet appeared by could. That way managers will have more opportunity to slow its spread before cases surge.

CWD has previously been identified in several Michigan counties, including Clinton, Dickinson, Eaton, Gratiot, Hillsdale, Ingham, Ionia, Isabella, Jackson, Kent, Midland, and Montcalm. 

Timeline for a plan

Stewart cautioned against much change coming to Michigan's deer management strategy by the next firearms hunting season. 

Before any new policy can be rolled out, stakeholders will need to be selected and workgroups established for both peninsulas. Next year's meetings that both workgroups will convene will likely include a broader array of people, from agricultural committees to foresters, as well as non-hunters.

There are also plans for a broad survey about deer trends that will be issued around the state. 

Work is expected to begin in December and January with a tentative plan of administering the survey by February.

Meetings could be held possibly in Bay City and Marquette in the mid-to-late spring before reports are issued for each respective peninsula by the middle of summer.


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