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Michigan deer hunters decline as pandemic boost in hunting wanes

deer
Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources reports a 4 percent decrease in deer hunting license sales last year after experiencing a boom in 2020. (Shutterstock)

With life getting back to normal after the pandemic, Michigan’s deer hunting participation is simmering down from a boom the sport experienced two years ago. 

The state’s deer hunting license sales were down almost 4 percent in 2021 from 2020, the Department of Natural Resource reported Thursday to the Natural Resources Commission, which passes fishing and hunting regulations. According to the DNR, total deer hunting license sales decreased by 48,792 last year, or down 3.6 percent from the 1.37 million sold in 2020.

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That decline follows a 5 percent jump in deer hunting licenses in 2020, a one-year bump officials attribute to the pandemic.

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Deer hunting licenses are not the only thing going down; fewer people are out deer hunting and fewer hunters are reporting their kills as well. According to the DNR, about 537,014 people participated in all three deer hunting seasons last year, nearly 5 percent less than the number of people hitting the deer blinds in 2020. 

“Because of the pandemic, we saw a lot of people (in 2020) have more time available to them which freed up opportunities for hunting and other outdoor recreation pastimes,” said Chad Stewart, the DNR’s deer, elk and moose management specialist. “When the pandemic restrictions were lifted, people found themselves back in their regular routines.”

Fewer hunters are also filling out harvest surveys that the DNR uses to get an idea of how the sport is fairing. Stewart said that 20 years ago about 75 percent of the harvest surveys sent to deer hunters were filled out, but that number has dropped to 33 percent in 2021. 

The steep drop in harvest survey responses prompted the DNR to require hunters to report their kills, a regulation the NRC approved unanimously on Thursday. Hunters must report their kill within 72 hours using the DNR’s website or an app that will launch in August, Stewart said. 

The pandemic bump was an anomaly but wildlife enthusiasts were hopeful the increased interest in the sport would be more permanent, said Tom Baird who chairs the NRC.

“Realistically speaking, it was a blip,” Baird said. “The decline in participation has been an ongoing trend for a number of years now. As people age out of hunting and fishing, they aren’t being replaced in the same numbers by younger people.”

Stewart, the deer management specialist, said the state has been experiencing a 2 to 3 percent annual decline in participation since the mid-1990s. He noted that the state is “still in a better place,” with last year’s participation above 2019 levels.

“Without the pandemic bump, those numbers would have continued to decline,” Stewart said. “But it was never going to be a reversal of a 20- to 25-year downward trend with the challenge we have to sort out.” 

That challenge is a shifting culture, especially among young people, said Nick Green, a spokesperson for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. The club represents tens of thousands of anglers and hunters statewide. 

Older hunters are aging out of the sport and younger people are not interested in it. There are other things taking up people’s time, Green said. 

When Green was younger, he said that his school would give students the day off during deer hunting season openers but “schools just don’t do that anymore.” There are also more sports for younger people to take part in, like kayaking and mountain biking. 

“Hunting just isn’t part of our culture as much as it used to be,” Green said. “As the baby boomers continue to die, we’re going to have to figure out how to fill their void.”

And as hunting wanes and continued land development pushes humans closer to animals, Baird, the NRC commissioner, said there is some fear that deer will overpopulate southern Michigan. 

According to the DNR, there may be as many as two million deer in Michigan, up from about 1.7 million a decade ago, and about 1 million in the 1940s. The most recent growth has been clustered in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, where most Michigan residents live. 

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That’ll become a problem in the coming years, said Stewart, who estimates that Michigan has lost 25 percent of its deer hunting population and will lose another 25 percent in the next decade. 

“Were going to have to start asking fewer hunters to take the same amount if not more deer because your deer population is going to trend upwards toward its carrying capacity,” said Stewart. 

The state needs to control the deer population, but getting more people to hunt could be challenging, said Michael Riepen, the president of the Michigan Deer Track'n Hounds Club. Riepen said there are too many things competing for people’s time.

“The middle generation is working long hours and want to go on vacation and the younger generations are not interested in hunting and fishing,” Riepen said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge to even maintain the participation we’re at.”

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