ESCANABA - Now the work begins as Department of Natural Resources personnel begin tallying numbers of deer taken during the 2008 firearm deer hunting season. Preliminary reports indicate the Michigan harvest is down compared to last year and the 10-year average.
The western U.P. has historically had more deer hunting activity than the eastern half. I had the opportunity to talk with Bob Doepker who is the wildlife supervisor for the region, and Craig Albright, biologist covering Deer Management Units (DMUs) 055 and 155.
Albright indicated preliminary numbers from these areas are down approximately 15 percent at both the DNR check stations in Stephenson and Escanaba.
Numbers of deer registered at the annual Deer Poll at the Island Resort and Casino in Harris were down. However, participants from the northern counties that usually attend were down due to inclement weather that evening. The deer checked into the Rusty Rail in Cornell was down a meager 6 percent.
Albright has checked with other Natural Resources managers inWisconsin and Minnesota. Their harvest numbers seem to be paralleling Michigan, being down about 15 percent. Preseason projections had also been reduced, again matching what we saw in the U.P. with an early and extended snowfall last winter.
Doepker reports hunters in the western U.P. were less than usual. DNR staff and US Forest Service Personnel indicated Wisconsin hunters were about the same as previous years, however there were noticeably less hunters from the Lower Peninsula.
It can be speculated the economy has played a role in the reduced hunter numbers. Disposable income for some Michigan residents has also likely caused some to stay closer to home. The increased number of deer in the southern L.P. may also be encouraging some to stay local or even travel south.
In the northern area of DMU 155 where I hunt, deer seemed to be "skittish," especially the does. I only saw one doe with fawns, otherwise they were few and all single.
The early snowfall also provided evidence that coyotes are plentiful with many varying sizes of tracks found on walking trails and deer runs throughout the area.
Some local hunters indicated that deer were mostly nocturnal when hitting bait stations . There were a number of good size bucks taken in the area but the rut was short lived and lesser males appear to have got in some breeding.
Albright said the number of 1.5 year old male deer used to total about 44 percent of all bucks registered. Those numbers have been reduced on the average by about half with the rest being older deer.
It is hard to say if the new antler restrictions played a significant role in the change, or if hunters are continuing or growing in the philosophy started by U.P. Whitetails for many years of "Let-em go and Let-em grow."
Doepker agreed and added there were a good number of hunters at least confused over the new antler restrictions on the combination tag, some finding the deer they brought in for registration to be in fact incorrect according to the rules.
Keith Warnke, Wisconsin DNR Big Game Specialist, reports their initial "call-in" tally appears to be down in parts of the state. The numbers are expected to change before the final report is published in late winter.
It does not include information from archery, October antlerless deer gun hunt, muzzleloader, December antlerless deer gun hunt or late archery seasons.
Wisconsin hunters have been participating in somewhat lucrative hunting quotas designed to bring deer populations toward healthy goals. However Warnke did indicate "It looks like our estimates of winter mortality and fawn production may be off, which if it proves true, would lead to over estimation of the pre-hunt population."
Like many parts of the U.P., the Wisconsin DNR reports hunters indicated there appeared to be fewer deer in the woods than could be expected from prehunt population predictions.
While this comment was common, registrations in the WDNR's South Central Region actually increased 3 percent over last year and the Southeast region held pretty steady, dropping about 4 percent.
Fawn production statewide in Wisconsin was the lowest it has been in 15 years. The deer season was also quite late, past the rut in most parts of the state, meaning deer were not moving as much as hunters might have hoped.
Some areas in the U.P. are expressing concern over reduced numbers from predation.
Wisconsin's West Central Region and Northeast Regions are coming off several years of herd reduction and earn-a-buck season structures designed to lower numbers to healthy populations.
"In the final analysis, once all the numbers are in, it is possible that there will be fewer herd control and earn-a-buck units in the coming season," Warnke said.
Wisconsin holds on to the best in the top 10 all-time single season whitetail harvests with 618,274 in 2000 and seventh best in 2004 with 517,169 deer taken.
Michigan holds three of the top 10 years listed, staying at the number two position with a harvest of 544,895 deer in 1999; third in 2001 with 541,701 and 10th in 2003 at 495,000 deer taken.
The worst year in Michigan's recent history was 1972 with a meager 59,490 deer taken. statewide.