Spring has only just begun, but Michigan fish and game regulators are already focused on the fall. Deer season, specifically.
Officials in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources last week recommended several changes to deer hunting regulations for 2023, including new opportunities for youth and disabled hunters, and changes to hunting limits in parts of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
The Michigan Natural Resources Commission could approve the proposed changes as soon as next month. Here’s a sampling of what’s under consideration:
Across the state, DNR officials want to expand opportunities for youth and disabled hunters to kill deer during the annual “Liberty Hunt,” a weekend in September that’s only open to those groups.
During a presentation last Thursday before the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, Deer, Elk and Moose Management Specialist Chad Stewart recommended lifting an existing limit of one deer per hunter, instead allowing hunters to kill a deer for each license type they possess.
Hunting’s waning popularity in Michigan has caused Lower Peninsula deer populations to skyrocket, Stewart said. State officials hope that by allowing hunters to kill more deer they can counteract that trend.
In the area surrounding Dickinson County, DNR officials want to lift a number of restrictions they imposed to keep chronic wasting disease from spreading in deer after officials discovered a deer sickened with the disease in 2018.
That includes ending antler-point restrictions specific to the area, and removing a ban on baiting and feeding deer.
The incurable disease, which is similar to mad cow disease, attacks deers’ brains in ways that cause them to stumble, starve and eventually die. It can spread through proteins contained in their feces, urine or saliva, which makes communal bait piles a hazard.
But DNR officials said hunters in the area can safely resume baiting deer, because CWD doesn’t appear to be spreading. Since the 2018 case, state officials have tested nearly 2,100 local deer and found no new infections.
“We feel pretty comfortable in essentially removing the regulations around that surveillance zone and trying to get back into a normal existence in that area,” Stewart said.
In the northern U.P., DNR officials want to lift a ban on killing does during archery season. The agency established that restriction in 2015 after several cold winters knocked back deer populations.
Avoiding does is one strategy to boost deer numbers, because does give birth to future generations. But DNR officials believe it’s no longer necessary in the northern U.P.
Some U.P. residents pushed back during Thursday’s meeting, arguing there are still too few deer to justify the change.
“We have a dwindling population of deer right now in those counties,” said Mike Taylor, of Marquette. “I drove down from Marquette all the way down here and through the whole U.P. I did not see one roadkill.”
In the Lower Peninsula, the department wants to reinstate a 4-point antler point restriction in 19 southern counties that make up the Lower Peninsula’s chronic wasting disease management area.
Years after the disease was first identified in Michigan’s wild deer, the DNR removed antler-point restrictions that had applied to some deer licenses, in hopes of containing the outbreak. By steering hunters away from younger bucks, the agency hoped to encourage hunters to kill more does, thereby driving down herd numbers to keep CWD from spreading.
But DNR officials have found no evidence that easing restrictions made a dent in the deer population, Stewart said. Antler point restrictions are also generally popular with hunters because they allow bucks to grow bigger.
As state regulators set the rules for next year’s deer season, lawmakers are considering just how severely hunters should be punished for breaking them.
Last year, it became mandatory for hunters to report their deer kill to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources within 72 hours. But the rule change also triggered a state law that threatens hunters with a stiff penalty — 90 days in jail — for failing to comply.
DNR officers have so far declined to enforce the law, which the agency views as too strict. But changing it would require action from the legislature.
A bill sponsored by Sen. John Cherry, D-Flint, would reduce that penalty to a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of up to $150. The bill has cleared the Senate and is awaiting a hearing before the House Natural Resources Environment, Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee.
Whether or not the bill passes, Stewart said DNR officials will continue prioritizing hunter education over doling out tickets, as hunters adjust to the new reporting system.
“We know that it almost takes a couple of years to reach everyone,” he said.