In antler-crazy Michigan, the state is requiring hunters to shoot more of them
The system worked well when Michigan was teeming with anglers. But participation in the pastime peaked at nearly 800,000 people in the late 1990s, and has been declining since then as hunters age out of the sport and are not replaced by Michigan’s younger population. There are about 540,000 deer hunters in Michigan today, and 100,000 of them are expected to give up their rifles in the next decade.
Together, these hunters kill about 300,000 deer a year, most of them bucks. Not enough to keep the population stable. State officials estimate there are now more than 2 million deer in Michigan, most of them concentrated in the southern part of the state. For context, species managers were concerned about overpopulation 80 years ago when the state’s deer population was half that.
The herds continue to grow despite DNR efforts to significantly relax hunting limits. The average hunter in the Lower Peninsula can now buy enough licenses to hunt up to 12 deer a year, as long as 10 of them are not bucks. This is enough to feed a family of four for two years.
Few hunters will shoot anywhere near that many, and the main reason may seem obvious.
“Freezer capacity,” said Amy Trotter, executive director of the Conservation Clubs of Michigan. She also pointed out the lack of opportunities to donate meat when the freezer is full.
“For someone who lives in a subdivision, when they shoot a deer, what do they do with it?” Trotter said.
It eats corn and destroys cars
The consequences of this defect are many.
Deer are voracious herbivores, said Sonia Christensen, a deer expert and faculty member in Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “If they are not monitored, they can eat out of the house and into the house very quickly.”
With limited natural habitat available in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, deer have found refuge in suburban backyards and rural farms, where they devour crops and hosts’ gardens.
In his worst-hit corn field, West Michigan farmer Eric Krieger estimates he is losing up to 20 percent of the crop to hungry herds.
“It has become difficult to farm,” he said.
Deer have also become a public safety liability, involved in nearly 59,000 car accidents last year in Michigan. They are vectors for ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease and other diseases to humans.
Overpopulation also poses health risks to the deer themselves, allowing diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease to spread more easily.
“I’m definitely concerned about the future if we continue these trends,” said Christensen, the Michigan State University researcher.
Old habits die hard
Here’s one benefit of densely populated deer herds: They make hunting easier.
This is great for those hunters who don’t want to spend a lot of time in the blind. Not so for officials who try to sell poachers in bags. Given the choice, few hunters would fill their first hunting tag with a doe if they could get a good shot at the doe, said Jim Sweeney, spokesman for Concerned Sportsmen of Michigan.
“I’m not a big buck hunter, but I know a ton of them,” Sweeney said.
The fascination with horns is nothing new. Our earliest relatives, the Neanderthals, displayed trophy shelves in their caves tens of thousands of years ago. Today there is an entire industry dedicated to big buck hunting, from companies that sell doe urine as an attractant, to magazines that display 10 dots on the cover like pin models.
“You can slice and dice regulations and rules in a million ways, but the cultural messages are too strong to get that much money,” Christensen said.
The preference for antlers is particularly strong in Michigan. It’s the only Great Lakes state where hunters shoot more bucks than hunters do, and it’s not even close: Hunters in Michigan last year killed 1.3 bucks for every doe. Compare that to Ohio, where hunters killed 1.5 people for every buck.
History may be partly to blame. The average hunter grew up in Michigan when herds were much smaller, and hunters were told to avoid it.
Those old habits die hard, said veteran fisherman Eric Schnell. As an advocate for the Michigan Chapter of the National Deer Association, he is among a group of hunters pushing for change.