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Guest column

Time to stop gambling with Upper Peninsula deer herd

Richard P. Smith

MARQUETTE — Since 2008, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Natural Resources Commission have been gambling with the Upper Peninsula deer herd, which is a public resource.

That year, new deer hunting regulations were adopted by the commission only in the U.P. called Hunter’s Choice.

Under those regulations, hunters who bought single deer licenses could shoot bucks with at least 3-inch antlers, but they could only shoot one buck per year.

Hunters who bought combination deer licenses could shoot two bucks, but one of those bucks had to have at least 3 points on an antler to be legal and the other deer had to have a minimum of 4 points on an antler.

Prior to 2008, one buck tag on all Michigan combination deer licenses was unrestricted, and it remained that way for the rest of the state when the change was made in the U.P. In effect, the new regulations penalized U.P. deer hunters. Those who bought a single tag had a better chance of filling it, but were done hunting when they did so over most of the U.P. because antlerless permits have not been issued for most of the region. Hunters who bought combo deer licenses faced reduced chances of filling either tag due to antler point restrictions.

The rationale behind “Hunter’s Choice” regulations for the U.P. was that they would increase the number of older age bucks in the herd, and that’s where the gambling was involved. The gamble was that U.P. winters would be mild enough to allow the bucks that hunters were forced to pass up due to APRs would survive to get older and grow a larger set of antlers. After 13 years of Hunter’s Choice, it’s obvious that gamble has failed.

As could have been predicted, a number of U.P. winters have been severe enough since 2008 to take major tolls of U.P. whitetails, which included many bucks that hunters were forced to pass up by APRs. Far more does and fawns also perished during those winters. Hunter’s Choice regulations were responsible for trying to carry too many deer through the winter. Consequently, winter deer losses were much higher than if one buck tag on combination licenses had remained unrestricted.

All of those deer that perished during tough winters damaged the UP’s limited winter deer yards by eating every morsel of food they could before they starved to death. The damage caused by starving deer reduced the capacity of that winter habitat to carry as many whitetails in the future.

Two of the worst winters since 2008 were during 2013 and 2014. Data collected from a 386-square-mile study area in Iron County between 2012 and 2015 during a predator/prey study gives a glimpse of how devastating those winters were on U.P. deer. The number of bucks, does and fawns photographed by cameras were compared at the same 64 remote baited survey sites each year from 2012 through 2015.

In 2012, 752 adult bucks were photographed compared to 699 for 2013. After the first severe winter, the number of adult bucks on camera dropped by almost 70% to 228 and declined further to 184 by 2015 (76% decline from 2012). Those are the same years that the number of older age bucks bagged by hunters in the U.P. declined sharply, going from 21,969 in 2013 to 15,545 during 2014 and 12,963 for 2015.

On that Iron County study area, the number of adult does that were photographed went from 4,729 in 2012 to 2,531 during 2015, almost a 50% decline.

Although the number of deer photographed at that Iron County Study Area from 2012 to 2015 was not the total population of the study area, they serve as an index of what happened during those years. The actual deer population would have been much higher than those numbers and the loss much greater. Since winter conditions were similar over most of the U.P. during those years, it’s safe to assume that the number of adult bucks and does declined by 76% and 50% respectively over the entire UP.

If those index numbers from the Iron County Study Area are used as a bare minimum to extrapolate how many adult whitetails were lost to winter between 2012 and 2015 over the entire 16,377-square-mile U.P., the number of adult bucks that died during those winters would be 23,856. The loss of adult does would be 92,316. It’s sobering to recognize actual winter losses of adult deer for those years had to be much higher. Most importantly, these numbers clearly show how and why the U.P. deer population has declined, along with the number of adult bucks, since 2008.

After 13 years, the DNR finally recognized “Hunter’s Choice” wasn’t working and the state agency recommended that those regulations be eliminated starting in 2021. The DNR also recommended that a ban on hunting with crossbows in the U.P. during December be eliminated and that antlerless deer should be legal targets for all UP bowhunters once again like they were prior to 2015. All of these proposed changes are positive for U.P. deer management and hunting to give hunters the opportunity to reduce winter deer losses.

But those changes have to be approved by the NRC before they can go into effect. The NRC is expected to vote on the changes at their meeting on February 11. The Commission’s two UP representatives have proposed amendments to the DNR’s recommendations that would eliminate the badly needed changes. Hunters can express their opinions about Hunter’s Choice by emailing comments to NRC@michigan.gov.

Editor’s note: Richard Smith is a noted outdoors writer and outdoorsman from the Marquette area.

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