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The state asked for solutions to its deer problem. Will any of them work?

White-tailed deer herd. (Photo: David Kenyon / Michigan Department of Natural Resources)
David Kenyon/MI Dept. of Natural Resources
Fewer hunters, a lack of predators and more habitat have all contributed to a slow, steady growth of Michigan's white-tailed deer herd. Those high numbers are increasingly affecting human and environmental health. (Photo: David Kenyon / Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

Fewer hunters are heading to deer camp, and more Michiganders are affected by the annoyances — and dangers — of a bigger herd. The Natural Resources Commission votes on new regulations Thursday. Will it help?

Deer numbers in lower Michigan have been climbing for decades, particularly in southern Michigan, and the state is feeling the sting.

Deer-related car crashes and tick-borne illnesses are on the rise. Farmers report major damage from the animals.

“For me, deer are a much, much bigger problem than pollution or climate change,” said Bernd Blossey, a professor of natural resources and environment at Cornell University who researches deer management. “Because what deer are doing, they take the self-healing power that would be in the natural world away.”

With a normal deer herd, Blossey says, plants in the forest could evolve and adapt by dispersing. But the larger herds of deer eat them so quickly, that it’s not as easy anymore.

So our forests are becoming less diverse. That means less habitat for certain animal species, less ability to adapt to climate change and less ability to sequester carbon.

“There's not going to be any conservation or protection of human health without greatly reducing deer populations," Blossey said. “They have run rampant over much of the Northeast and Midwest for decades, and people are only very slowly realizing.”

“For me, deer are a much, much bigger problem than pollution or climate change.”

Bernd Blossey
deer management expert

Hunters have been the main tool for controlling deer herds throughout those decades. But fewer people are hunting these days, and that means more deer on the landscape.

So Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission, which decides on regulations for the DNR, created the Deer Management Initiative, or the DMI.

It was a group mainly of hunters, conservationists, resource managers and representatives from special interest groups to recommend solutions to the problem.

There were suggestions to expand the urban archery deer season, expand antler-point restrictions and reinstate baiting in counties where disease hasn’t been detected, among several others.

Blossey says none of the suggestions are likely to significantly reduce deer populations.

“If you were to just take all regulations off and people could shoot deer for, let's say, from September or mid-August … to April, nothing would change, because people have no incentive to go out and shoot more than the [average number] of deer that they have shot in the past,” he said.

Blossey says there's no silver bullet, but a combination of more robust approaches could help.

A program called Earn-A-Buck worked in Wisconsin. It required hunters to shoot one doe before they could harvest a buck.

There’s also market hunting, which would create a regulated market for harvesting and selling venison commercially. Lethal culling can also be effective.

But all of those are unpopular with various groups. (Earn-A-Buck’s unpopularity in Wisconsin, for example, later led to a state law prohibiting the Wisconsin DNR from using the program as a management tool.)

These solutions can also be difficult logistically because of private property and cost.

Jim Sweeney is a hunter in Leelanau County. He was part of the Deer Management Initiative group for the Lower Peninsula.

“Do I think it will move the needle? Slightly. Do I think it'll come close to providing the solution? No.”

Jim Sweeney

The DMI group heard presentations from over a dozen experts, including DNR deer biologists, foresters and climatologists.

Sweeney says the process went well but felt too rushed to be able to dig into deeper issues.

“Had this not been an expedited situation — if this was spread out over a year — I think we would have come up with much better, more grounded, more biologically based recommendations than some of the recommendations that came out of it,” he said.

The process started in February and culminated in April, when DMI members had two days in-person to come up with a list of recommendations.

That final list had about 11 suggestions for new regulations in the Lower Peninsula. They were presented to the commission in June. (A few additional recommendations were added on after, some of which were suggested by commissioners.)

Despite that, Sweeney says he only expects a few to pass for the 2024 hunting season

“Do I think it will move the needle? Slightly,” he said. “Do I think it'll come close to providing the solution? No.”

The Natural Resources Commission says this is only the first stage of a longer process; they don’t expect a few regulations passed this year to solve the problem.

They plan to look at other management options and research these next few years, then reevaluate regulations again in 2027.

Sweeney is also hopeful that more time can bring better solutions.

He says part of his hope is for fellow hunters to become more cognizant of the risks associated with deer overpopulation and more open to embracing solutions.

“The data is out there, the biological information is out there, but it's a matter of overcoming the very strong perception among hunters that attempts to mitigate those issues are at cross-purposes to deer hunting,” he said.

The two are not at odds, Sweeney says. And he thinks hunters doing something about the deer problem will actually be key to preserving the sport of deer hunting.

Ellie Katz joined IPR in June 2023. She reports on science, conservation and the environment.