Michigan, like many states, has always relied heavily on deer hunters; that doesn’t look to be changing

By Charlie Booher

Deer hunting in Michigan is a pretty big deal and has long been our conversation cash cow. If you didn’t already know it, I’m sure you’ll come to that realization after reading through this magazine or any other outdoor publication this time of year. However, many only think about deer and deer hunting between August and December — preparing for, during and directly after the fall seasons. For others, this is a year-round pursuit that takes up a whole lot of time in the field, mental space for planning and dollars from wallets. Needless to say, the level of planning, commitment and education varies among hunters, not to mention in the broader wildlife conservation community.

Deer hunting in Michigan

Every fall, around 600,000 people buy a deer tag out of a total ~660,000 unique hunting license buyers in Michigan (in 2018). These numbers fluctuate yearly, generally on the decline, but the proportion has remained relatively stable over time. While Michigan hunters all purchase a base license making them eligible for small game hunting, research suggests that many of these individuals buy a license for hunting deer (and small game is often just a bonus). Nationwide, seven out of 10 people who hunt, hunt deer. Since state fish and wildlife agencies (like the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) are primarily funded by hunting and fishing license dollars, this puts many eggs in one basket. The number of people who exclusively hunt deer creates a reliance on their license dollars.

Dollars and deer

This is even more impactful because federal funds (through the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act) are distributed, in part, based on the number of unique individual license buyers in each state. So, if most of the unique individual license buyers exclusively hunt deer, state fish and wildlife agencies are extraordinarily reliant on them for both their license fees and in the federal funding calculations.

However, state fish and wildlife agencies need large numbers of deer hunters and require well-educated, conservation-minded sportsmen and sportswomen. This doesn’t account for the fact that those who know more about deer biology and behavior tend to meet their hunting goals more consistently – whether they are motivated by antlers, meat or the experience.

Because of the number of conservation dollars tied to deer, whitetails are one of the most studied animals on the planet. The scientific community likely knows more about deer than most species in the state of Michigan. Yet, as we walk into the woods and fields this fall, it is often easy to forget the processes, trials and tribulations that the entire ecosystem has been through in different seasons. Thankfully, there is a fairly easy way to digest a great deal of this information without ever cracking open a textbook.

Deer steward course

While we were socially distancing and working remotely this spring, I took advantage of the opportunity to take the National Deer Association’s (NDA) Deer Steward I course online. With nearly 16 hours of curriculum, the class provides an in-depth overview of everything dealing with deer and deer hunting through Clemson University’s virtual coursework platform.

The creation and presentation of this information is a key element of the organization’s mission, NDA Director of Conservation Kip Adams said.
“QDMA [before NDA merger] has always focused on education and providing the best available information for hunters, landowners, agency employees and anyone else interested in deer,” Adams said. “We at QDMA believe that breaking down the science of deer management will create better, more informed stewards of our natural resources.”

Different versions of this course have been created to be presented to state fish and wildlife agencies members to teach professionals about these important topics. The funding model necessitates them knowing a thing or two about deer — and a number of fish and wildlife agency professionals around the country believe that this is the best way to educate staff about the “cash cow” of conservation.

Whether or not participants in these classes work for state fish and wildlife agencies, are private landowners or are public land hunters, there is valuable information to be learned. These informed stewards fund conservation efforts and conduct active habitat management on private land. For states like Michigan, where 72 percent of the land base is privately-owned, the amount of private land being managed for wildlife is greater than that of public land with similar objectives. From the Deer Steward courses, hunters and land managers have the chance to educate themselves about ecosystem succession, habitat types and physiology.

While this course provides great insight for those with land to manage for deer or other wildlife, it also offers an opportunity to learn about how decisions regarding deer management are made and the factors that are taken into account. After studying this for four years, one of the most impactful elements of this course was having a crash course in state-level deer management. This is especially true of the need to acknowledge uncertainty in management decisions and learning about the models used to make decisions. As deer hunters, it is easy to get frustrated with rules and regulations — especially when the hunting digest grows to almost 100 pages long. However, each of these rules are enumerated for a reason, and many of those reasons can be explained through this form of education.

A mature white-tailed buck stands and looks at the camera. Michigan deer hunting is our conservation cash cow.

Michigan’s conservation cash cow matters

In changing deer regulations, we often see conflicts in the Natural Resource Commission over a few topics without fail: antler point restrictions (APRs) and doe harvest. These two regulations divide hunters every time a decision is made. This course seeks to offer some background information on both of these topics.

“Folks always want to focus on bucks,” Adams said. “But sometimes, you must focus on the does to grow mature bucks. That’s why I think the lesson on antlerless deer management is one of the most important modules in the course.”

In the unit on population dynamics, QDMA staff and academic deer researchers outline both sex and age as essential demographics. These factors are then combined with hunter goals to determine the rules and regulations that you find in the hunting digest or on the wall of your hunt club.

Many elements of this course expand the pursuit of deer hunting beyond just the fall season. The lessons of this class and it’s many hours of instruction offer activities during all times of the year and help focus your management efforts on what will make the biggest difference. This course is built to have something for everyone who enjoys deer or deer management. Much of the habitat content is geared towards landowners who might be able to manipulate habitat on their personal ground. However, it is just as appropriate for public land hunters who volunteer to improve State Game Areas (often facilitated by programs like MUCC’s On-the-Ground).

Of course, deer are very different depending on where you are in the country.

The deer steward course has been ongoing for more than a decade and has been online for the last seven years. It has been filmed twice in that time to ensure that the curriculum is up to date with current research and suitable for deer enthusiasts all over the country. Typical, in-person sessions of the Deer Steward II host individuals from 15 to 17 states and can be customized to suit the needs of people from those places. The online Deer Steward I course takes a systems-based approach to make the modules suitable for any habitat type and includes examples from around the country. While the focus is often on habitat, the instructors also take the time to break down elements of deer hunting culture that are unique to different regions of the country. The Deer Steward I course is only offered online and can be taken anytime, whereas QDMA exclusively offers Deer Steward II in person.

While many folks were stuck at home this spring, they decided to invest some time into this course.

“Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, people were taking advantage of the discounted course,” Adams told me. “Participation in the deer steward course is normally pretty high, but it really spiked during March and April. As we got into June and July, our numbers started to return to normal, but the increased participation helped us to make up for the losses of so many cancellations. We’re looking forward to returning to the classroom in the summer of 2021.”

Learn more

Beyond Deer Steward I, QDMA offers several other courses, including Deer Steward II and various other habitat workshops. If you’ve already taken Deer Steward I, you might consider joining their Deer Steward II course in Alabama in May 2021 or a habitat module in Pennsylvania in August 2021.

In taking these courses, I would hope that you might gain a better understanding of deer, deer hunting and deer management. The scientific community knows a great deal about these large mammals, and QDMA has put it in a form that is easy for hunters to digest.

As of this writing, the future of QDMA is in flux as the organization merges with the National Deer Alliance. The organization’s leadership maintains a strong commitment to education, deer and deer hunters, and they plan to have the merger finalized by the start of the 2020 deer season. Through this combination and their partnerships with other conservation organizations around the country, I am certain that deer hunting will remain at the forefront of the conservation conversation in the future.

As a reminder, mandatory reporting of deer harvests goes into effect for the 2022 season. Learn more about how to do that and what this regulation means here.