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Public sector/Quality of life

Deer have Michigan on the run

Michigan’s 2010 firearm deer season was in its first week when a bizarre car-deer accident in suburban Grand Rapids killed a 17-year-old girl.

Barbara June Barnick, of Ionia, was driving toward Grand Rapids when an approaching vehicle hit a deer and catapulted the animal into Barnick’s minivan. Stunned by the violent collision, the teen veered off the road and struck a tree, according to police reports. Barnick was one of 11 Michigan motorists killed in the 55,867 car-deer accidents reported in the state last year; another 1,277 people were injured, according to state data.

All were victims of two ominous, divergent trends that endanger motorists and affect many aspects of the state’s environment and economy: Michiganhas too many deer and too few hunters or natural predators to keep the herd in check.

“We’re in a world of hurt,” said Russ Mason, wildlife chief for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “We’re losing 2 percent to 3 percent of our hunters every year and we’ve lost 50 percent of our small game hunters over the past 12 years.”

The number of hunters in Michigan has been shrinking since the 1960s, according to state data. Hunting license sales have decreased 15 percent over the past 15 years, from 934,430 in 1995 to 786,880 last year.

The ranks of hunters are shrinking nationwide. But the effects of that trend are especially prevalent in Michigan, where deer dominate vast areas of the landscape, hunters are the primary method for keeping the herd in check and revenue from the sale of hunting licenses funds many of the state’s wildlife management programs.

Fewer hunters mean: Less money for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to manage wildlife; less money to maintain forests, marshes and other areas where birds and mammals reside; less money for conservation officers who keep poachers in check; and less money for small businesses that count hunters among their best customers.

It also means more deer.

Michigan now has about 1.7 million deer, according to DNR estimates. That’s slightly above the state’s current population goal of 1,567,000 deer; and it’s 51 percent larger than in 1937, when the DNR’s first deer biologist began to talk about the “deer problem,” according to state records.

A Department of Natural Resources map shows the relative density of the state's deer population. Counties in darker shades have higher densities of deer. Note the contrast between the lower densities of the Upper Peninsula and the higher ones near Michigan's urbanized areas.

Dennis Fijalkowski, executive director of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy, said the massive deer herd has enormous influence over the health of forests and woodlots, which support a vast array of wildlife.

(BRIDGE CHARTS: Michigan’s fauna, fish and fowl)

“If you care about birds and like watching birds, what happens with deer affects the birds that you love so much,” Fijalkowski said. “It’s an integrated web of life and it’s out of balance; deer are one of the few species that has the ability to destroy its own environment.”

Hordes of majestic deer are wreaking havoc in numerous areas of Michigan by stripping the undergrowth from forests and eating residential gardens.

Motorists also are in the crosshairs: Deer smashed into Michigan vehicles an average of 153 times each day in 2010. Those accidents caused $130 million in property damage and killed nearly as many people in Michigan as tuberculosis, according to state data.

Wild turkeys also are becoming a nuisance in parts of Southern Michigan. Turkeys were once eliminated from Michigan, but the state has re-established the population over the past three decades.

There are now about 200,000 wild turkeys inMichigan. The birds have become a nuisance in some cities and agricultural areas, prompting the DNR to relocate some of them to the northern parts of the Lower Peninsula.

On the flip side of the issue, business owners who rely on hunting for their livelihood aren’t complaining about the fact of too many deer; they fret about the decreasing number of hunters to go after them.

Ron Lundberg, owner of the Rusty Rail near Escanaba, said business at his tavern has decreased significantly over the past decade.

“When I bought the business in 2000, business was much better; the weekends were always packed,” Lundberg said. “It’s not that we don’t get good crowds now, we just don’t get the crowds we used to get — and it’s because there aren’t as many hunters as there used to be.”

Lundberg would know: His bar doubles as a state-sanctioned deer check station during the firearm deer season.

The state in recent years has enacted a number of programs to recruit a new generation of hunters and thin the massive deer herd in Southern Michigan. The Legislature in September passed a law that allows children as young as 10 to hunt deer, bear or elk with a firearm, provided an adult supervises them. Next year, the state will eliminate the minimum age requirements for hunting as part of the new Hunter Heritage Act.

The DNR allows hunters to kill more antlerless deer than in the past. And the agency pays farmers in Southern Michigan — where the deer herd is most concentrated and public land for hunting is most scarce — to allow hunters to shoot deer on their land.

“One of the major obstacles we face in Southern Michigan is that the vast majority of the land is privately owned,” DNR spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said. “There is a lack of public hunting land, especially in Southeast Michigan.”

The bite at the apple

Many conservationists blame the decline of fishing and hunting on youth sports, particularly soccer, and the soaring popularity of electronic devices — including personal computers, cell phones, iPods and video games — that have youngsters spending more time than ever indoors.

“It’s a change in our society,” said Tom Heritier, president of the Saginaw Field and Stream Club.

“I grew up hunting and fishing and being outdoors — it seemed like the natural thing to do,” Heritier said. “Now you’ve got kids who want to hang out on a computer from the time they get home from school until they go to bed.”

Heritier said the Saginaw Field and Stream Club once attracted 250 children to its annual hunter safety class. “Now we get about 150 kids; that’s happened in just the past 10-15 years,” he said.

At the same time, state funding for the DNR and Department of Environmental Quality has been slashed by nearly 80 percent over the past decade. A recent Michigan State University study found that Michigan ranks 47th nationally in funding for conservation programs.

Mason said there is a simple solution for people concerned about the shrinking ranks of hunters in Michigan and the drop in revenue for conservation programs: Buy a hunting license — even if you don’t hunt.

“All of those dollars (from license sales) go to the ground, for conservation and wildlife management,” Mason said. “Every dollar of license revenue leverages $3 in support from the federal government. What could be a better deal than that?”

Locals hire professional hunters

Faced with a growing deer herd and little assistance from the state, many Michigan communities and some nature centers are taking up the battle to thin the herd.

Meridian Township, near Lansing, and the Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids recently announced plans to shoot deer. The township joined the cities of Marshall, Jackson and Grand Haven and nature centers in Kalamazoo and Midland that now hunt deer to keep the herd in check.

Efforts to thin urban deer herds have ignited controversy in Grand Haven and Rochester Hills. Critics contend there is no scientific justification for killing urban deer; they also claim there are more humane ways to solve the problem, by sterilizing or relocating nuisance deer.

(Michigan’s deer management plan)

Meridian Township Manager Gerald Richards said residents in the community just east of East Lansing and MSU were concerned about car-deer accidents, the potential for deer spreading Lyme disease and the fact that the animals have wiped out countless gardens.

Richards said a former DNR director who lives in Meridian Township estimated there were 2,000 deer in the community, which encompasses 32 square miles.

“He told us we needed to shoot at least a thousand deer,” Richards said. “We’re taking it relatively slow; this year will be a pilot year.”

15 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Dan Moyle

    Fascinating information Jeff. It certainly makes me consider picking up a shotgun again and getting out into the woods. I’ve seen an increase in deer in the Portage/Kalamazoo area in recent years. They’re definitely growing in numbers. I fully support hunting the deer. Maybe it should be made legal to sell venison commercially.

  2. Larry Socie

    It always seems the legislature is fighting last years problems. We need more poaching not less. We need to allow hunters to sell venison. We need to commercialize venison so that the farmer can make the fall harvest a cash crop. To parrot the tea party we need to get government out of the way and let capitalism work its magic.

  3. Al

    Having been one to say what I believe, It those that read this article will also read the article on Michigan’s economy and will face the facts. they should be able to figure out why we have so many deer. How many of the readers drive foreigm automobiles? How many of Michigan’s people left the AMERICAN AUTO MANUFACTURERS AND DESTROYED MICHIGAN’S MANUFACTORING BASE. What did this do for the ability of our state to manage the deer population? Who were all the hunters we have lost? Most were either employed by the big three or one of the smaller supporting manufacturers. How many southern people that came to Michigan for work have gone to other places? Today, The DNR specialist needs to convince the Dr’s, Lawyers and Chief’s to buy license’s or pay more to the state to maintain the deer population. Most of the lower income that supportrd hunting in the past can barely put food on the table and a roof over their head.

  4. Willi

    Deer exist even in highly industrialized cities like Warren, Michigan’s 3rd largest city. They run freely upon the Red Run, the GM Tech Center, and are seen often in the middle of the day.

  5. Marvin Roberson

    The problem is not declining hunter numbers. The problem is managing most of our forests to produce the maximum number of deer possible in order to satisfy the small (8%) and shrinking number of hunters. We have an order of magnitude more early successional forests than nature would provide, so we have far more deer than the landscape can sustain, causing terrible damage to our forests. The solution is not more hunters, but to stop managing for an overabundance of deer. Hunters do not limit deer numbers, they demand unnaturally high deer numbers. Hunters are the problem, not the solution.

  6. MIke H

    I have paid $75 dollars in hunting licenses this year. Perhaps the cost of being able to hunt should go down. If a smaller DNR means less enforcement of poaching laws wouldn’t that contribute to a smaller herd? If they did less “conservation” wouldn’t that contribute to a smaller herd not a larger one. I am not saying poaching is good, just that right now enforcement of such laws may not be a priority when the herd is too big.

    “Combo” deer $30
    Antlerless x2 $30
    Fall Turkey: $15

    That ignores the fishing and small game licenses I buy each year. All Species Fish $37 (I think) Small game $15 (I think)

    Those are paid every single year if I want to stay out of jail.

    Way too high in a recession when access to food for my family should be made cheaper if at all possible.

  7. Toni Carroll

    Perhaps all those single parent families who have lost their state assistance could be paid to go out and shoot deer. That would provide jobs (hunting, processing, sales, supervisors, trainers) and provide food for those hungary kids.

  8. Woof

    Wolves. Wolves kill deer. They eat cows, too, of course. Small price to pay.

  9. Sue

    Deer are among our largest wild herbivores. What keeps herbivores in check? Predators (wolves, cougars, coyotes, and of course humans). Lengthen the firearm deer season, pay to thin the herd in urban areas and protect animal predators so they can keep the “rats with antlers” under control. I lived in Colorado near open ares with cougars, wolves and more — you learn to be careful when in the wild . . .

    1. common sense

      you disgust me right here. how about we thin out the herds of humans? and stop eating and supporting processed meat and bam! the land provides for the people in it- healthily- and the people dont take over alllll the land that the animals need. animals live and eat outside. thats their house, they need it. less of them? how selfish! less of US. we dont need this many people to survive anymore. cut the numbers w/the convenience of technology.

  10. Al

    Woof must be a city slicker. They brought coyotes to southern Michigan and what has happened to small game? What have the coyptes done to the rabbits,pheasants,quail and turkey eggs. I live in the country and like to hunt. The DNR needs to realize people quit buying lisences when there isn’t any game to hunt.

  11. Ronald J. Bomia

    The hunting and fishing in Michigan is ruled and regulated so much that if you are out in the field or on a stream or lake, you will be breaking one of the rules in the eyes of the law.So consequently it becomes to much of a hassle and aggravation . So you quit hunting or fishing altogether. Buying a license becomes moot. ” HELLO WAKE UP”

  12. common sense

    um. you’re confused. the deer aren’t endangering the motorists. the motorists are endangering the deer. lets use common sense to get our facts straight instead of greed-driven consumerism. humanity disgusts me. stop putting houses and buildings where the deer live, and by golly perhaps they’ll stop wandering into towns!

  13. Anonymous

    Maybe we wouldn’t have this problem if people stopped decimating the wolf population.

  14. LEE

    As a youth in Michigan I would hunt the northern woods of Oscoda co.seeing five –ten deer per day I`m 66 yrs old now and hunting the same place takes me ten days or more to see one deer. The early private land antlerles youth hunts and late season private land are what screws everybody .personally if I could I`d sue the state.If you think you have to many deer than keep the fed and state lands open for early and late antlerless and stop the early youth hunts let them kids hunt like their fathers did at the appropriate time and stop showing favor to land owners .if i don`t own a small parcel I can`t hunt, shame on the DNR. you make me sick.

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