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Deer expert: Expect fewer hunters in the Michigan woods this year

deer
Last year’s COVID-19 hunting boom appears to be waning this year. (Bridge file photo)

It seemed like a sign of hope against an otherwise bleak outlook for the future of deer hunting in Michigan.

Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed people out of offices, movie theaters and restaurants and into the outdoors, hunting participation increased for the first time in years. 

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Nearly 675,000 people took to their deer blinds in Michigan, an increase of 5.5 percent for a pastime that has endured a quarter-century of declining participation. But despite whispers of a possible renaissance, early statistics from this season indicate last year was an anomaly.

Related:

Dustin Isenhoff, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources research specialist who tracks hunting participation, helped Bridge Michigan explain what the numbers mean. Highlights from the conversation follow.

Michigan has lost 270,000 hunters since the mid-1990s. Where have they all gone?

They’re aging out of the sport, Isenhoff said. And their kids, who are less likely to live in the rural places where publicly-accessible hunting lands abound, have found other ways to spend their time.

“There’s a culture shift,” Isenhoff said, and a sheer abundance of other options that weren’t available in decades past. That has “chipped away” at the sport’s popularity, particularly among younger generations who are instead picking up activities like mountain biking, snowmobiling and kayaking. 

 

“Every year,” he said, “there’s more competition for your time.”

What about last year’s COVID outdoor bump? Why hasn’t that continued for hunting, like it did for other forms of outdoor recreation?

The dynamics are different. Camping, hiking and mountain biking were already on the upswing —  the pandemic simply sped up the process. Hunting, on the other hand, has been waning for decades. 

Last year’s gains, driven largely by women and younger hunters, represented a shift for a sport that has become increasingly reliant on an aging, mostly male hunter population.

But this year, Isenhoff said, “we're seeing the most erosion in those age groups that saw the biggest upticks last year.”

You can thank the end of COVID office closures and social distancing. 

Many of last year’s new hunters, Isenhoff said, were taking advantage of a sudden abundance of free time. Now, they’re back to spending their days commuting to work, and their weekends participating in other pastimes.

So far, participation is down 8 percent compared to last year, though it’s still ahead of 2019.

If some of those new hunters stick around, will hunting participation stabilize?

Probably not. Long-term, Isenhoff said, he expects participation to keep dwindling, as the diehards who fueled the sport’s 90s heyday age out of the sport.

But he noted that the DNR and hunting groups are deeply invested in efforts to recruit new hunters through youth educational programs, mentorships for new hunters, and partnerships with breweries that feature venison on their menu to entice the locavore crowd. 

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The agency has also focused heavily in recent years on creating new hunting access opportunities in southern Michigan, closer to where most people live. The new Crystal Waters Game Area in Monroe County is an example.

What does it mean for DNR revenue?

Bad news. The agency gets about 20 percent of its funding from hunters and fishing licenses, using it to pay for conservation officers, habitat protection and fish and game management. Another 19 percent from federal excise taxes on guns and ammo. 

“It’s a big deal,” Isenhoff said. “Every less license sale is less potential funding.”

The surprising upside: While hunting is down, Isenhoff said gun and ammo sales are “exploding,”  as are the taxes levied on them. In 2019, Michigan received over $20 million from that pot of federal money. That revenue is expected to grow when Michigan receives its next allocation, following a year of record gun sales in Michigan. 

That, Isenhoff said, has helped to offset some of the pain of fewer license sales. 

“Target shooting definitely has been a bit of a lifeboat,” he said.

But, as Bridge has reported, it’s also created headaches of its own, as gun enthusiasts descend on public lands with semi-automatic rifles, irking neighbors and prompting the DNR to ban target shooting at some state game areas.

So, where will the DNR get money instead? 

“That’s a big question,” Isenhoff said, and “there’s really no great silver-bullet answer.”

Michigan U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, is lead sponsor of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, which would create a new influx of $1.4 billion annually toward species recovery, helping to offset the decline in hunting and fishing revenue.

Previous versions of the bill have died in each of the past two congressional sessions, leaving doubt about its hopes of passage this time.

Some states have modest initiatives that allow residents to voluntarily fund conservation, like Idaho’s conservation license-plate program. But those token contributions pale in comparison to the hunter-generated revenue that will need to be offset if participation declines continue.

What does it mean for the rest of us?

More deer getting caught in your car’s headlights...or caught munching on your flowers or vegetable patch.

As Bridge is also reporting, deer are posing problems in the Lower Peninsula as hunting’s decline combines with other human influences, like predator suppression and habitat encroachment, to allow unchecked population growth.

Hoofed herbivores are “one of the winners of human disturbance,” Isenhoff said, and they thrive in corn fields and backyard flower gardens.

Their growth in the parts of Michigan is forcing new coping strategies, from government-sanctioned culls to sterilization and walls around Leelanau County’s cherry orchards. But for now, Michigan’s disappearing hunters still represent the primary means of population control.

“Everything else,” Isenhoff said, “is either incredibly expensive or just not practical.”

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