Firearms deer season is underway and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says things are generally on an upward trend throughout the state.

Firearm season is when the MDNR tends to see the highest participation. Last year, 576,000 hunters participated across all seasons of deer hunting – with about 490,000 of those participating in firearm season. The overall forecast depends where you are in the state according to Chad Stewart, Deer and Elk Program Specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He says Michigan is a big state so there’s a lot of diversity and variability with the deer population. The MDNR has seen an increase in overall deer numbers in the trends monitored. There is higher deer density toward the southern Lower Peninsula but as hunters work their way further north, deer numbers tend to decrease, which has been common trend for quite some time. Stewart says the Upper Peninsula experienced a pretty dramatic decline in deer population after the 2013/2014 winter, which was a really hard winter and a lot of deer died. He says there has been an upswing in the overall harvest though. Last year’s harvest in the U-P increased 55%, and with a fairly moderate to mild winter from last year, Stewart says all signs are pointing to continued improvement in that region as well. He notes numbers are typically higher in the Lower Peninsula than anywhere in the state, and trends support an increasing population. He says they anticipate a similar season to last year, if not better. Firearm season runs through November 30th to make up a 16-day season, which Stewart says is by far most popular season and most heavily participated in – adding most hunters are successful in the first couple days or first half of the season.

Although the deer population is up, the state is seeing a 2-3% decline annually in the number of participating hunters which Stewart says is a function of the baby boomers – individuals in their 50’s and 60’s. He tells WHMI they continue to age each year and the state loses a percentage of those hunters because they start dropping out of the sport. Stewart says unfortunately they don’t see the number of teens, 20 and 30-year-old hunters behind that baby boomer wave that is getting out of hunting to come back in and replace them. He says the age structure of hunters is very much skewed to the older side and looking forward in years to come, many of those hunters will be out of the sport and they do not have the numbers to fill that void. Stewart says that is absolutely one of the next big challenges and when you look at deer management over the next 20, 30, 40 years that’s going to be a topic that will have to be addressed. At some point, he says they’re going to try to ask hunters who are smaller in number to continue taking the same amount, if not more deer, than they’re currently taking –which may prove to be a challenge. Stewart says they’re trying to hold off that wave as much as possible today and doing things to try to recruit new hunters and retain the hunters they do have but at some point the age and numbers will catch up and the MDNR will have some challenges on their hands over the next couple decades.

As for firearm season, Stewart say what the MDNR is trying to accomplish in many areas is a reduction of the deer herd, especially in southern Michigan, and they would like to see more antlerless deer being harvested, which is something they historically have not seen. Antlerless deer are primarily female deer and reproducing animals, so they control the direction the deer population. Stewart says since 1970, Michigan hunters have only taken more antlerless deer than antler deer in four different years. He says they want to change that trend as it contributes to an increase in deer population in many areas.

Chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis also remain prevalent in certain areas but Stewart says they haven’t seen any dramatic shift in hunters away from those areas. He says there are several areas in the state where identified diseases are transmissible between deer including Montcalm, northwestern Kent, northern Ionia, Clinton, Ionia and Ingham Counties but most recently Jackson. He says there has been a lot effort and emphasis on trying to identify the scale and scope of the disease in those areas. A couple weeks ago, Stewart says chronic wasting disease was discovered for the first time in southern Dickinson County in the U-P. He says staff has been working really hard and would like more hunters to participate in the DNR surveillance program and get their deer tested, to further knowledge of chronic wasting disease up there.

16 counties are included in a chronic wasting disease management zone where hunters are prohibited to use bait because of the added risk to transmit the disease. Stewart says the future health of the deer herd is important and while the regulation might turn off some hunters, he ultimately thinks most will continue to hunt - albeit at a slightly smaller margin because they are seeing those very small declines annually based on generally what appears to be the demographics associated with the overall hunting public.

Complete hunting information and regulations can be found through the provided link and attached Michigan Hunting Digest publication. (JM)