Michigan's 2008 Deer Outlook -- Part 2: Our Best Hunting Areas

A third consecutive milder-than-usual winter should result in more whitetails for Michigan hunters. (December 2008)

For the first time in Michigan history, some deer hunters who are content to shoot yearling bucks are being discriminated against on a regional basis. Although the Upper Peninsula has the highest buck hunting success in the state and the highest proportion of 2 1/2-year-old and older bucks, the Natural Resources Commission recently enacted regulations penalizing U.P. hunters who tag bucks with less than three antler points on one side.

The new rules give Region 1 whitetail hunters two choices. They can buy individual archery or firearms deer licenses to shoot one buck with 3-inch antlers or better. A two-season hunter who buys an archery tag and shoots a buck before Nov. 15, obviously won't buy a firearms license, if he obeys the law, because it won't be valid.

The second option is buying a combination deer license with two buck tags, both of which are supposed to be restricted. One tag is for a buck with at least 3 points on one antler that are an inch or more in length. The other tag is for a buck with at least 4 points on one antler.

This only applies in the U.P., mind you. Deer hunters in the rest of the state can still buy combo deer licenses with which one buck having 3-inch spikes or better is legal (unrestricted). The second tag would be for a buck with at least 4 points on one antler (restricted).

And it's not as though more restrictive antler point regulations have not already been tried in Region 1. Seven years ago, bucks in four U.P. deer management units (DMUs) had to have at least 3 points on one side to be legal. After a five-year trial period, there was not enough support to continue the regulations in three of them. The 3-point rule remains in effect in one southern Dickinson County DMU (122).

The 3-point rule has been in effect in DMU 122 for seven years now. If the larger antler restriction was working as it is supposed to and it proved popular enough to continue after five years, you would expect higher hunter satisfaction there than elsewhere in the region, but that is not the case. Only 40 percent of the members of seven deer camps in DMU 122 that participated in a DNR survey considered their hunts good to excellent last fall. Sixty percent rated them fair to poor. Buck hunting success was 34 percent in that DMU.

DMU 022, which includes parts of Dickinson and Iron counties, had the highest buck success and satisfaction for 2007, according to the DNR's deer camp survey. Twenty camps from that unit, including 104 hunters, participated in the survey and they reported a 43 percent rate of success on bucks. Fifty-five percent of the camps rated their season good to excellent.

Even though bucks with 3-inch antlers were legal in DMU 022, the majority of hunters reported passing up spikes and forks voluntarily. There's obviously more satisfaction in letting small bucks go voluntarily rather than being forced to by mandatory regulations. That's part of the reason the U.P. already has a greater proportion of older age bucks in the herd than other regions of the state because many hunters already pass up young bucks by choice.

Of course, thousands of people who plan to hunt whitetails in the U.P. this fall had already purchased combo licenses with one unrestricted buck tag before the NRC changed the rules. As this was written, the DNR was scrambling to try to figure out how to handle that. DNR big-game specialist Rod Clute said hunters who want a refund for combo licenses can get one from the license agent where they purchased it within 30 days. After 30 days, refunds can only be obtained from the DNR office in Lansing.

Besides creating major confusion and an enforcement nightmare, there's an excellent chance the new antler restrictions for Region 1 will reduce buck hunting success and harvest. That's what the U.P. Whitetails Association, the proponents of the proposal approved by the NRC, want. By discriminating against (penalizing) hunters in the U.P. who are satisfied to shoot yearling bucks by ending their hunt when they fill one tag, the organization hopes to reduce the harvest of all bucks, not just yearlings. That's likely to happen because hunters who want to maximize their hunting time will be encouraged to buy combo licenses with both tags restricted or hunt elsewhere in the state.

Hunters who have to shoot a buck with at least 3 antler points on a side are less likely to fill either tag. Some hunters simply won't see a buck that meets the minimum requirement. The necessity of counting antler points will save some bucks that otherwise would have been taken because shot opportunities will be gone, in some cases, by the time hunters are able to determine a buck is legal. In other situations, legal bucks will walk away unscathed because hunters won't be able to tell how many points the antlers have.

Buck hunting success in the U.P. was the highest in the state for all seasons combined during the fall of 2007, according to DNR survey data. The success rate on bucks in Region 1 during all seasons last year was 35.3 percent, according to a final report on the 2007 deer harvest issued by the DNR. That compares with buck hunting success of 33.2 percent for Region 3 (southern Michigan) and 27 percent for Region 2 (northern Lower Peninsula).

The regional buck hunting success in the U.P. for the 2007 firearms season was close to 10 percentage points better than any other region in the state at 33.8 percent. Success rates on antlered bucks for Region 2 during the 2007 gun hunt was 22.4 percent. The rate of success was slightly better in Region 3 at 24.5 percent.

Besides having the best buck hunting success in the state, a higher percentage of bucks bagged in the U.P. were at least 2 1/2 years old. Only 47 percent of the bucks voluntarily registered at DNR offices in the U.P. during 2007 seasons were 1 1/2 years old. A whopping 53 percent were a minimum of 2 1/2 years old.

As a result of the new rules, buck hunting success could decline significantly in the U.P. this fall. I hunted out of a camp with five other guys in Keweenaw County during the 2007 gun season. Two bucks were taken, both of which were yearlings, giving our camp a 33 percent success rate, which was typical for U.P. camps last fall. One buck was a spikehorn and the other was a forkhorn.

It's not that larger bucks weren't present. They were. We saw their tracks, rubs and scrapes. One buck with at least 8 points was seen, but a shot wasn't possible. Older bucks are always the toughest for hunters to get. That's the nature of the beast. If everyone in camp has a combo license this year and no one gets a shot at a buck with at least 3 points on an antler, like last year, our success rate will be zero.

The number of antlerless per

mits available for the U.P. this year have also been reduced, so it's not likely that as many does and fawns will be bagged by hunters in Region 1 this year as last. That translates into a much lower chance of filling a deer tag in the U.P. and a lower overall deer harvest because of the anticipated reduction in the number of both bucks and does that will be taken by hunters. Without the more stringent antler restrictions in Region 1, the stage was set for the deer harvest to increase again in the U.P. this year like it did last year.

The deer kill in the U.P. for all seasons increased by 17.1 percent during 2007 from the year before, more than anywhere else in the state, according to DNR estimates. A total of 57,988 bucks and does were taken by hunters in Region 1 last fall compared with 49,509 in 2006. The deer harvest during the 2007 gun season increased by 20.3 percent, going up to 41,419 from 34,396.

Two mild winters in a row are responsible for the upswing in hunter harvest and success in the U.P. As deer numbers have increased in response to mild winters, more whitetails have been available to hunters. The winter of 2006-2007 was a record mild one. The previous winter was also milder than normal. Winter deer survival and fawn production were excellent each year.

Last winter was rougher on U.P. deer, resulting in some fawn losses. Most adult whitetails survived, however, meaning there will be plenty of antlered bucks for hunters who decide to try their luck in Region 1. Deer numbers are much higher along with success in western U.P. counties. Region 1 counties with the highest deer numbers are Menominee, Delta, Dickinson, Iron and Gogebic. Highest deer numbers in the east U.P. are found in Schoolcraft, Mackinac and Chippewa counties.

Deer hunters who plan to hunt in regions 2 and 3 this fall can expect success similar to what was enjoyed a year ago.

The deer kill in Region 3 increased by 5.3 percent for all seasons during 2007 over 2006. An estimated 282,362 whitetails were tagged by hunters in that region compared with 268,043 the year before, according to DNR figures. The harvest of antlerless deer increased by 12.1 percent (140,922 versus 125,691), while the buck kill decreased by .7 percent (141,393 compared with 142,361).

A five-day antlerless-only firearms hunt approved for this region during Sept. 18-22 this year should boost the harvest of does and fawns to an even higher level. This special hunt designed to lower deer numbers was only legal on private lands in Region 3 and it was held early enough that it should not have much effect on the regular archery and firearms seasons.

Deer harvest levels during this year's gun hunt should be similar to last year when 146,611 bucks and does were taken, which is a 1.7 percent increase over the 144,187 bagged during 2006. The number of antlerless deer taken during the 2007 gun season in this region increased by 5.9 percent (67,390 versus 63,656) and the buck harvest went down by 1.6 percent (79,221 compared with 80,531).

The district in Region 3 that had the best deer hunting success during the 2007 firearms season was the south-central. A total of 42.2 percent of the hunters who tried their luck in that district tagged at least one deer of either sex. Buck hunting success in that district was 24.9 percent compared with a 22 percent success rate for antlerless animals. Counties that make up the south-central district are Lenawee, Hillsdale, Washtenaw, Jackson, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, Shiawassee, Clinton, Ionia, Gratiot and Montcalm.

The Saginaw Bay district was next in line in Region 3 for success on deer of either sex during the gun hunt at 39 percent. Success on bucks in that district was 25.1 percent and the rate of success on antlerless deer was 18.5 percent. This district is composed of Saginaw, Isabella, Clare, Gladwin, Midland, Bay, Arenac, Tuscola, Sanilac and Huron counties. The northern counties of that district (Arenac, Gladwin and Clare) are actually part of Region 2, but most of the counties in that district are in Region 3.

The deer harvest in Region 2 increased by 2.3 percent for all seasons during 2007 when compared with 2006, according to the DNR. Results should be similar this year. A total of 282,362 bucks and does were tagged by hunters in this region last fall versus 268,043 the year before. The antlerless harvest was up by 14.1 percent (50,763 compared with 44,484), while the buck kill declined by 3.5 percent (85,507 versus 88,633).

The five-day antlerless-only firearms hunt was also held in the seven-county TB Zone in the northeastern district of Region 2 on Sept. 18-22 in an effort to reduce deer numbers. Deer Management Assistance (DMA) permits were also issued by the DNR to farmers in the TB Zone during the spring to reduce deer numbers. Some of those permits may have been filled with adult bucks rather than does, because bucks would not have had much, if any, antler development at the time those permits were issued.

Deer killed under DMA permits are not included in figures for hunting season harvest. A total of 7,389 whitetails were taken on these permits during 2007, most of which were shot in the northeast district of Region 2.

Even with the exclusion of DMA permits, the deer kill in both districts of Region 2 increased slightly for all seasons last fall. The number of bucks and does bagged by hunters went up by 3.3 percent in the northeast (54,600 versus 52,878) and 1.4 percent in the northwest (60,993 compared to 60,123). The harvest of antlerless deer increased by 9.8 percent in the northeast (20,301 and 18,496), and the buck kill was down by .2 percent (34,309 and 34,381). In the northwest district, the antlerless harvest increased by 16.4 percent (20,610 and 17,709), and the buck kill was down by 4.7 percent (40,400 and 42,410).

For all seasons, hunting success for deer of either sex was slightly higher in the northwest at 36.1 percent versus 34.8 percent success in the northeast. The success rate was slightly higher in the northeast district during firearms season at 29.7 percent versus 28.3 percent in the northwest. Highest deer numbers in the northwest are in Newaygo, Mecosta, Oceana, Mason, Lake and Osceola counties. Bucks in Leelanau County must have at least 3 points on one antler to be legal. Highest deer populations in the northeast can be found in Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Crawford, Oscoda and Alcona counties.

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