In antler-obsessed Michigan, the state begs hunters to shoot more does
- As Michigan copes with too many deer, state officials are pleading with hunters to shoot more does to lower birth rates
- The average hunter in Michigan is focused on bucks, which does little to combat population growth
- But old habits may die hard. Michigan’s hunters favor antlers more than their peers in neighboring states
As whitetail deer populations overwhelm some communities in lower Michigan, natural resources managers have tried a number of strategies to reduce herds.
They allow hunters to kill more deer each year. They’ve experimented with lower-cost licenses in parts of the state, and relaxed regulations to promote more harvests.
“Not effective,” said Chad Stewart, deer, elk and moose management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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As hunting becomes less popular and suburban sprawl allows deer to multiply, Michigan’s herds just keep growing, wreaking havoc on forests, farms and car windshields.
Desperate for a solution, some hunting advocates and state officials are trying a new tactic: Begging Lower Peninsula hunters to stop chasing antlers, and instead train their bow or rifle on does.
“Hunters, we simply need to do better with antlerless deer harvest,” Stewart wrote in an open letter to Michigan hunters this fall, warning that “our reputation as conservationists” is on the line.
The logic of that message is simple: Killing adult male deer has little effect on herd sizes, because it only takes a few bucks to impregnate many does. But killing adult females prevents the birth of twins or triplets in the spring, which would help curb populations.
By Stewart’s estimate, Michigan hunters are tens of thousands of does short of the number the state would like them to kill to keep populations stable. But in a state where hunters seem to be infatuated with antlers, it’s unclear whether it’s possible to change enough minds to reverse the trend.
Fewer hunters, more deer
It wasn’t always this way.
For much of the 20th century, hunters were plentiful and whitetail deer were scarce in the Lower Peninsula. Hunters were instructed to avoid does in hopes of expanding the herd.
The tactic worked, and for years, state officials were able to keep herd sizes within an acceptable range by simply tweaking regulations annually.
The system functioned well when Michigan was teeming with hunters. But participation in the pastime peaked at close to 800,000 in the late 1990s, and has been declining ever since as hunters age out of the sport and younger Michiganders don’t replace them. There are about 540,000 deer hunters in Michigan today, and 100,000 of them are expected to hang up their rifles in the next decade.
Together, those hunters kill about 300,000 deer annually, most of them bucks. It’s not enough to keep the population stable. State officials estimate there are now upwards of 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 as large.
The herds continue to grow despite DNR efforts to dramatically relax hunting limits. The average Lower Peninsula hunter can now buy enough licenses to shoot up to 12 deer annually, so long as 10 of them aren’t bucks. That’s 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 Michigan United Conservation Clubs. She also noted a shortage of opportunities to donate the meat when the freezer is full.
“For someone that lives in a subdivision, when they shoot a deer, what do they do with it?” Trotter said.
Devouring corn, destroying cars
The consequences of this imbalance are many.
Deer are voracious herbivores, said Sonja Christensen, a deer expert and faculty member at the Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “If they aren't kept in check, they can eat themselves out of house and home pretty 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 gobble up row crops and hosta gardens.
In his hardest-hit corn field, west Michigan farmer Erik Krieger estimates he is losing as much as 20 percent of the harvest to hungry herds.
“It’s getting tough to farm,” he said.
Deer have also become public safety liabilities, implicated in nearly 59,000 automobile crashes last year in Michigan. And they are vectors for ticks, which can transmit lyme disease and other illnesses to humans.
“I’m certainly concerned for the future if we continue on these trends,” said Christensen, the MSU researcher.
Old habits die hard
Here’s one benefit of densely-populated deer herds: They make for easier hunting.
That’s great for those hunters who don’t want to spend much time in the blind. Not so much for officials trying to sell hunters on bagging does. Given the choice, few hunters will fill their first hunting tag with a doe if they can get a good shot at a buck, said Jim Sweeney, spokesman for The Concerned Sportsmen of Michigan.
“I’m not a big buck hunter,” Sweeney said, “But I know an awful lot of them.”
The predilection for antlers is nothing new. Our early relatives, the Neanderthals, displayed trophy racks in their caves tens of thousands of years ago. Today there's an entire industry dedicated to big buck hunting, from companies that sell doe urine as an attractant, to magazines that display 10-points on the cover like pinup models.
“You could slice and dice regulations and rules a million ways, but that cultural messaging is so strong for getting that big buck,” Christensen said.
The preference for antlers is particularly strong in Michigan. It’s the only Great Lakes state where hunters shoot more bucks than does, and it isn’t close: Michigan hunters last year killed 1.3 bucks for every doe. Compare that to Ohio, where hunters killed 1.5 does for every buck.
History may be partly to blame. The average Michigan hunter grew up when herds were far smaller, and hunters were told to avoid does.
Those old habits die hard, said veteran hunter Erik Schnelle. As an advocate with the Michigan chapter of the National Deer Association, he’s among a contingent of hunters pushing for change.
On his 79-acre property in Belding, north of Ionia, the 63-year-old Schnelle limits himself to one buck every three or four years. Focusing on does keeps the herd healthy, he said, and allows the bucks to survive long enough to grow bigger antlers.
Schnelle challenged the mindset of some hunters who see bucks as a more difficult target. In Michigan, most bucks don’t live long enough to become suspicious of hunters, he said. Older does, in contrast, can be more elusive because “they’ll figure you out.”
“Some of the does I harvest in here, they know, depending on the wind direction, where I'm most likely to sit,” Schnelle said. “And they avoid those spots.”
From Schnelle’s perspective, the state’s plea for hunters to shoot more does is long overdue.
But not every hunter feels the same way. Stewart said his open letter to hunters was met with plenty of supportive emails, along with a few angry responses from hunters who don’t believe there’s a problem, or don’t think hunters are responsible.
His personal favorite: “You're not qualified to manage deer, you're not even qualified to manage chickens in Ohio.”
Sweeney, of the Concerned Sportsmen group, said he’s not fully convinced that southern Michigan’s overpopulation issue has become “a crisis of epic proportions.”
Blake Mallory, a hunter involved in the TV show Michigan Whitetail Pursuit, said he simply doesn’t think it’s going to convince the average deer-a-year hunter to change their ways.
“What everyone dreams about is shooting the big buck,” he said.
Case in point: Michigan Whitetail Pursuit’s videos of buck hunts are wildly popular. The ones featuring doe hunts are lucky if they get 1,000 views.
Plan B…or C
There are other options available to combat the Lower Peninsula’s deer population problems, but almost all of them would be controversial.
Wisconsin, for instance, experimented with an “earn a buck” program that forced hunters to shoot an antlerless deer before they could target a buck. It worked at reducing deer herds. But it was reviled by hunters, who soon convinced state lawmakers to ban the policy.
“There are more tools that are available to us that we've been reluctant to adopt, because of other states’ experiences,” Stewart said. “But we need to start having the conversation, because what we're doing right now is not working.”
Others argue the state could encourage hunters to shoot more does by raising the price of a buck license, or offering discounted doe licenses. Trotter, of MUCC, guessed that hunters would shoot more deer if the state expanded programs that help hunters donate venison after filling their own freezer.
But Schnelle, the Belding hunter, sees a pro-doe marketing campaign as the easiest and most effective option — one that offers hunters a choice that he fears could soon be taken away.
If deer numbers continue to balloon, he fears, deer elimination duties could be reassigned to commercial firms, threatening Michigan’s long tradition of recreational hunting.
“Non-hunting people will say, treat them as a pest.”
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