The marathon has started.
That was what Michigan DNR Deer Biologist Chad Stewart said earlier this week regarding the long hours and days his next few weeks would include. Although the actual start of the firearm deer season wasn't until Friday, Stewart said he already was busy leading up to opening day.
While chronic wasting disease and the baiting and feeding ban are topics that seem to be on the minds of most hunters, antler point restrictions have quietly remained in place. The restrictions are a tool used to protect a class of bucks of a certain age from being harvested to graduate them to the next age class by only allowing hunters to harvest bucks with a certain number of antler points on a side, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Check station data is used to determine for any proposed area the minimum number of antler points necessary to protect at least half of yearling (1.5-year-old) bucks.
Michigan’s basic statewide deer hunting regulation — the definition of an “antlered deer‘ as one with at least one antler that measured three inches or more — was adopted in 1921 and has remained the same since that time.
With the firearm season here, the Cadillac News talked to the DNR as well as hunters to see what their thoughts are regarding APR.
HISTORY OF APR
In 2011, a proposal was submitted to consider establishing a three-point restriction in 12 counties in the northwest Lower Peninsula, including Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Missaukee, Osceola, and Wexford counties.
The Natural Resources Commission enacted antler-point restrictions in those 12 northwest Lower Peninsula counties in June 2013. Under the regulations, hunters are required to ensure antlered deer have at least one antler with a minimum of three points, with each point at least 1 inch long. A total of 1,000 surveys were sent out in 2012 by the Department of Natural Resources asking if hunters approved of the proposal. The survey returned with a 68.5 percent approval rate.
In 2017, APR was again looked at in the 12 northwest Lower Peninsula counties. The DNR proposed to continue the APRs "without sunset," meaning that there will be no further evaluation of the law and the DNR will no longer look at whether it should remain. It again was surveyed and eventually approved. Now it is considered permanent unless brought back before the NRC, just like every other law that relates to hunting and fishing.
Stewart said there hasn't been anything brought to the NRC regarding a statewide APR so at the moment only those counties in the upper Lower Peninsula have it.
In August 2018, the NRC requested that the DNR evaluate the public opinion of antler point restrictions in Huron, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, and Tuscola counties. The hunters surveyed failed to reach the 66% threshold for the DNR to recommend APR be implemented. The department requires a 66% response in support of the regulation to recommend APRs to the NRC.
"This is a choice for hunters. Some want to harvest older bucks, but some don't. They maybe don't have the time or they don't want that freedom of choice taken away," Stewart said. "Simply put, deer management is as much about quantity as it is quality."
Where the APR is in place, Stewart said the DNR knows they are supported. Stewart said when the re-evaluation was done in 2017 the percentage jump from the upper-60s to more than 70% approval. He also said hunter satisfaction in the ARP area compared to non-APR areas was no different.
BY THE NUMBERS
With the firearm season just started, it won't be until sometime in 2020 before the number of hunters, the number of harvested deer and the number of licenses purchased is known. But it is likely the numbers for 2019, at least when it comes to the number of hunters afield, will be lower than in 2018.
DNR deer hunting stats for 2018 showed 361,000 deer were harvested, which was a 4% decrease from 2017. The report also showed 554,000 hunters participated in last year’s deer seasons, which showed a 3% decrease. On average, Michigan has been experiencing a decrease of 2-3% annually in the number of hunters afield.
The report also showed that 49% of the hunters who went out last season were successful.
Although overall there was a decrease in the total number of deer harvested when compared to 2017, there were some interesting things that came to light when looking at harvested deer by region of the state.
In the Upper Peninsula, Stewart said the report showed the harvest last year was similar to 2017. There was a slight increase in the number of harvested deer, 0.4%. In southern lower Michigan, Stewart said the report showed the number of harvested deer was up 4.5%.
In northern lower Michigan, however, the report showed harvested deer were down 16% when compared to 2017.
While that is statistically significant and a decline of nearly 25,000 deer, the report also determined it likely was a result of wet, rainy weather last fall that hit northern lower Michigan.
The numbers showed there were about 580,000 deer hunters in 2017, while more than 620,000 hunters bought licenses. The numbers also showed the estimated harvest in 2017 was 390,000, which was 14% higher than in 2016.
With the number of hunters declining, it would lead one to think the population, especially in the APR region, would be an issue. Stewart said he doesn't believe, right now, the deer population is an issue. He said the trend of population increase is universal regardless if it is in the APR or non-APR areas of the state.
Stewart also said when the DNR talks about population management it always has to do with antlerless deer. He also said there have only been three or four years out of the last 30 where there have been more antlerless deer harvested when compared to the antlered deer harvest.
"We haven't seen a change other states have been seeing. We have more hunters than other Midwestern states, but our antlerless harvest is comparatively less," he said. "Michigan hunters harvest more bucks than does and that will have to change as we continue to lose more hunters."
CWD AND APR
In 2018, the DNR tested more than 40,000 deer heads for CWD, about 25% of all samples tested in the entire United States, according to a recent report penned by the DNR.
Since testing began, 133 deer in nine Michigan counties have tested positive for the disease. Michigan joins a list of 26 states and three Canadian provinces with confirmed CWD in wild cervid (deer, elk, and moose) populations, the DNR said. Among many other proactive steps taken to fight this disease, Michigan – along with Wisconsin – formed a coalition of state and federal natural resource managers, wildlife biologists, veterinarians, and social scientists.
Besides, the MSU-DNR Chronic Wasting Disease Advisory Group was created in 2018 to identify and fund high-priority CWD research and outreach activities. Recognizing the threat that CWD poses to Michigan’s hunting traditions and local economies, the Michigan Legislature provided $4.3 million in funds in 2019 to support these activities as well as to help fund CWD field surveillance, according to the DNR.
Stewart also said the DNR also is looking at how APR can impact the spread of CWD. When it comes to CWD or bovine tuberculosis, Stewart said the prevalence rates seem to be higher in older deer and/or bucks. With that in mind, Stewart said the question was posed, what if you have APR in the area where the disease has been found or there is a chance for higher risk?
"We know CWD is a big deal in our state and other states. APR is highly visible and a highly debated topic," he said. "We need to see if these two pieces can exist together."
As a result, Stewart said the DNR is embarking in an experiment where APR will be put in place in areas where CWD has been located to see what happens. The evaluation will be for the next three years and if there are warning signs that APR IN A CWD zone is not conducive to good deer management, Stewart said the NRC will step in.