Lake Leelanau, Mich. — Early results from Michigan’s initiation into mandatory reporting of deer harvests show general acceptance of the system, a need to evaluate a discrepancy with previous statewide deer kill estimates, and a new set of deer season data points that hunters may find fascinating.
For instance, it’s no secret to hunters that more deer are shot on the opener of the firearms season than any other day in a series of seasons that begins in mid-September and ends on Jan. 1. But mandatory reporting has shown that a deer is downed on average every .8th of a second during shooting hours on Nov. 15.
The first day of archery season on Oct. 1 is also big, resulting in about 6,500 tagged deer, according to Chad Stewart, the deer, elk and moose management specialist for the DNR Wildlife Division – by far the most deer shot by archers in one day during seasons that run 76 days.
The survey also validates the popularity of a strategy embraced by many deer hunters of passing up does early in the fall while waiting for a shot at a buck. Prior to Thanksgiving weekend, more bucks than does were killed through archery equipment and firearms. The ratio started at about 60% bucks to 40% antlerless deer in early October, moved to 70%/30% by the end of the month, and peaked with the rut at about 80% bucks as the firearms season got underway.
Antlerless deer made up the bulk of the harvest by the time deer seasons started to wind down, Stewart said.
Such detailed information is only now available through an online reporting system that was first used in 2021 on a voluntary basis and made mandatory last fall. Statistics, including those described above, will need some massaging through a process to estimate the percentage of successful hunters who failed to report their kills, Stewart said.
He likens the first season of required reporting to a learning experience and expects few citations to be issued unless other violations were involved.
“The official approach is up to officer discretion. I can’t tell you that no tickets were issued because I don’t know, but chances are if they did issue a ticket that there were other things going on. The approach was education over enforcement … it’s a culture change we’ve been trying to get hunters to adopt,” Stewart said.
The most obvious statistic to come from the system was the total number of reported deer, which as of Jan. 11 stood at 302,857. DNR deer harvest reports for 2021 (403,696) and 2020 (420,071) were more than one-third higher.
So what gives? Did only three out of four successful hunters register their deer as required by law? Or have the deer harvest estimates, which rely on a decreasing number of returned paper surveys mailed to hunters, been shown to be inaccurate in recent years.
As often happens, the answer is likely found somewhere in-between those scenarios.
The Wisconsin DNR goes on the assumption that between 80% and 90% percent of its deer harvest is reported. If 85% of Michigan deer killed by hunters were reported, the extrapolated number of deer killed in Michigan would rise to 350,000.
The paper survey, which also provides a subjective look into the season by asking whether hunters were satisfied with their experience and why they hunt, will continue to be mailed to randomly selected license holders. Results from returned surveys will be combined with objective numbers provided by online reporting to provide a finalized deer season report at the June meeting of the Natural Resources Commission.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out because you don’t know how much of that (discrepancy) is due to previous error or under-reporting at this particular time,” said Tom Baird, chair of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission.
He and other commissioners heard praise for and objections to the move into mandatory reporting at their monthly meetings.
Concerns were expressed about a lack of phone or Internet service at remote hunting camps, the invasiveness of being forced to fill out a government report, the deadline of having to report within 72 hours of taking a deer, and a lack of technical skills held by some hunters needed to fulfill the obligation.
Others objected to the process of pinpointing the exact location of their kill on a digital map.
Consequently, bigger bucks were reported killed in the middle of Lake Superior and on the North Pole, and more than 10% of hunters never moved the pin on their screen.
A legal interpretation of the state Freedom of Information Act, however, required that exact locations be included in individual kill reports to fulfill a promise made to hunters that the information they provided would remain confidential.
Stewart and Baird thought the system breakout went well and generally was well received by the public.
“I thought the program performed really well, and I thought the hunter response to having the program available was, quite frankly, excellent,” Stewart said.
Added Baird, “The actual program seems to be quite easy to use for people. This is going to be a very powerful tool at a time when managing the herd is a challenge for us both in the UP where hunters feel numbers are low, and they are, and in the LP where numbers are too high. On the high and low sides, we need the best data we can possibly get as we go forward on this.”
The daily reporting of deer provided a source of entertainment for some.
“A lot of folks like to see the results come in. They get a kick out of watching the harvest and seeing where it occurs in the state,” Baird added.
Steve Potrykus of Brighton, who has a hunting camp near Gulliver in the Upper Peninsula, was familiar with required reporting after killing bucks in Iowa and Ohio. He supports the program, hoping that information gleaned by the DNR will lead to better deer management in Michigan.
“It’s a good program based on other states I’ve hunted and what I’ve seen of their management,” Potrykus said. “I think most people reported their deer. When you go to a butcher now, they cannot process your deer without the confirmation code. Would I think it’s 90% (reporting)? Put it this way … I would think this would make their count much more accurate.”