Lansing — If there was just one word to sum up the first week or so of the 2014 firearms deer season, it would be “down.” License sales were down, deer harvest appeared to be down, and hunting accidents were down.
Heading into Thanksgiving weekend, deer-hunting license sales were down about 6 percent from 2013. A license fee increase and adverse weather early in the season are being eyed as the likely culprits for the decline.
The license fee increase enacted last year by the state Legislature went into effect in April, and deer hunters felt the impact of that increase for the first time this fall. In 2013, hunters paid $15 for a single deer license and $30 for a combo license. This year, hunters first had to purchase a base license – which allows them to hunt small game – for $11 before purchasing a deer license. The single deer license increased $5 to $20, while the combo license, which allows a hunter to kill two bucks, increased $10 to $40.
The total increase for single license was $16 (from $30 to $46) while the total increase for a combo license was $21 (from $30 to $51).
Despite the fact that most of the funds generated through the increase were earmarked for habitat improvement, some hunters appeared to shy away from purchasing a license this year. Adverse weather, including up to 40 inches of snow in some parts of the Upper Peninsula, likely also played a role in the decline in license sales.
As of Nov. 25, deer-hunting license sales were down 6.3 percent, as 653,305 individuals had purchased at least one deer license. That’s down 41,158 licenses from last year at the same date.
“Heading into the firearms season, total license sales were down about 2 or 3 percent,” Brent Rudolph, the DNR’s Deer and Elk Program leader told Michigan Outdoor News. “That’s pretty consistent. We usually see a 2- to 3-percent fluctuation from year to year. Plus we kind of expected to see a little drop because of the new license increase. Any time you have a jump in price, you’re going to lose some people. We kind of expected a 7- to 9-percent loss in all licenses across the board.”
Michigan’s firearms deer season opens Nov. 15 each year. Usually, with a Saturday opener like the state had this year, license sales increase, but that wasn’t the case.
It appears the total kill will be down as well, although the official numbers won’t be available until early next year.
Many areas of the state had heavy snowfall during the first few days of the season. Some areas in the northern and western U.P. had up to 40 inches of snow, and the southwest Lower Peninsula had unseasonably high snowfall, with up to 15 inches on the ground in some areas, like Kalamazoo and Newaygo counties.
“The harvest has been a mixed bag,” Rudolph said. “The biggest impact we saw was in some areas of the U.P. that had so much snow some guys couldn’t even get into their camps. Some people left before the season opened.”
The deer count of southbound vehicles at the Mackinac Bridge was just 1,741 on Nov. 24. That’s a 45-percent decline from last year’s total of 3,144 on the same date.
Rudolph said success in the Lower Peninsula was variable and also depended a lot on the weather.
“What we’re hearing is that not a lot of hunters saw big numbers of deer, but a lot of hunters saw similar numbers to last year or less than last year,” he said. “There were days with a lot of blowing, driving snow. It’s tough to hunt in those conditions, and even if you do hunt, you can’t see the deer very well.”
Rudolph said early indications are that antler development was down a little.
“Antler development in some areas was not what we usually see,” he said. “Maybe that was due to the tough winter we had last year, even in southern Michigan. Body size appears to be good and the deer we have seen have a lot of body fat.”
The best news about the early part of the 2014 firearms season from a law enforcement perspective was a decline in hunting accidents. The DNR Law Enforcement Division tracks firearms-related incidents. As of Nov. 26, there had been just one incident during the firearms season, which was still under investigation, and seven total since Jan. 1, with no fatalities. In 2013, there were nine total incidents, including five during the firearms season, including one fatality.
“It’s been an exceptionally safe year for hunters,” said Dean Molnar, the assistant chief of the DNR’s Law Enforcement Division. “I attribute that to our hunter orange law and to our hunter education program and the more than 2,000 volunteers teaching people how to be safe hunters.”
Molnar said there had been no unusual game law violations, aside from a couple elk that were poached during the firearms season.
In one case, a 51-year-old Waterford man confessed to killing a 4×4 bull elk in Montmorency County on Nov. 15.
“Another hunter saw the elk go by him, then he heard a shot,” Molnar said. “He went over and found the dead elk and reported it. The hunter who shot had left the area, but due to the weather conditions we were able to track the suspect down.”
In the other incident, a 5×6 bull was killed in the Gaylord area, and Molnar said the investigation is ongoing. Charges had not yet been filed as of press time.
“We do have a suspect,” Molnar said. “The guy turned himself in.”
Molnar said the DNR has been prosecuting poachers under the state’s new enhanced deer violation penalties. The new law increases the amount of fines and restitution for the illegal killing of a buck. Restitution for illegally taking a deer remains $1,000, and jumps to $2,000 for antlered deer. In addition, poachers are now fined $500 per legal point for bucks that are between 8 and 10 points, and $750 per legal point for bucks that have 11 points or more. An antler point must be at least one inch long to be considered legal.