Increase in Michigan deer harvests in 2023 is an encouraging sign for managers

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Officials got positive news on the condition of deer hunting in Michigan on Thursday during a presentation on last year's harvests.

Instead of the expected decline that wildlife managers have come to expect, 2023's total participation in deer hunting rose 1.4%. And for the first time in decades, it happened without a change in policy.

"What is really notable is in 2023, (it was the) first year we saw an increase not associated with regulation change or a pandemic," said Brain Frawley, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources."

Michigan has seen a gradual decline in the total number of deer hunters since 1996, with the average drop being about 1.4%. There are exceptions to the decline, specifically when the DNR lowered the minimum age requirement to apply for a license to hunt deer. 

During those periods, deer hunting rose for a short period before falling back down. 

Another exception was in 2020 when the pandemic led to a jump in outdoor recreation in Michigan. But hunter numbers then fell further in 2021 and 2022. In 2023, deer hunter numbers rose without any change in hunter regulations, with 594,348 registering in the state.

Over the past three years, the number of harvest tags sold rose 2.3%. A closer look at the numbers showed that while the number of deer harvest tags that were issued dropped in 2023, they rose for all other categories of tags, which included antlerless deer, mentored youth, or a combination of all three.

Harvest tags sold between 2021-2023. The number of harvest tags sold increased by 2.3%, the DNR said. (Data via DNR deer harvest presentation. )

More encouraging trends from Frawley's presentation to the Natural Resources Commission was an increase in participation among hunters 20 years old and younger. 

And diving into harvest data across the state shows numbers rose everywhere in the state, except in the Upper Peninsula. The biggest increase was in the southern Lower Peninsula.

In January, the NRC heard statements from DNR officials who detailed a laundry list of issues facing hunting, from disease and habitat concerns to tits declining number of hunters needed to keep the populations in check.

In response, it started its Deer Management Initiative, which sought feedback from stakeholders around the state on the best ways to continue managing deer in Michigan. 

A list of policy recommendations will be delivered at its June meeting.  


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Long-term trends

Zooming out further, deer harvest information reveals that the number of hunters had reached levels not reported since 1960. 

Frawley said the rise and fall of deer hunters correlates with more participation in the baby boomer generation - which is now aging out. 

As the number of deer hunters have fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s, the success rate of hunts has remained much higher. (Data via DNR deer harvest presentation.)

Yet, even as the number of hunters in Michigan has fallen, the success rate of those hunting deer has doubled. The same number of hunters who shot about 75,000 deer in 1960 harvested 175,000 in 2023.

Commissioners estimated the rise in deer populations in the state could be leading to greater success rates among hunters.