Firearm deer season begins Friday.
It’s also the first opening day in about 10 years where hunters won’t be able to bait deer because of a baiting ban.
The rule has upset some hunters who have pushed lawmakers to get rid of the baiting and feeding ban. But the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the mandate is necessary to protect hunting in Michigan.
At his home in Long Lake, hunter Greg Nicolaou organizes his clothes and does a final check of his gun.
"This a Savage Model 99," Nicolaou says. "It’s an old style level action rifle that I’ve had for about 35 years."
This weekend he is hunting on a friend’s property on Old Mission Peninsula. Nicolaou often hunts in the Upper Peninsula. When he’s there, he has limited time, so he lures deer with bait.
Baiting is still allowed in most parts of the U.P. But the practice was banned outright in the Lower Peninsula on January 31st this year.
The Michigan DNR instituted the ban because it says deer congregating in the same place increases the potential for spreading diseases, like chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis.
Nicolaou says he’s in favor of the bait ban because it’s what state scientists agree is best. But, he sympathizes with hunters who want to bait.
"It’s the only way they know how to hunt, frankly," Nicolaou says. "They’ve been doing it for the past 20 years. They don’t know how to pattern deer."
Because of the abundance of forest and lack of farmland, it is harder to hunt without baiting in northern Michigan, and some people won’t go out if they’re not sure they’ll come home with a buck, he says.
He worries the bait ban might discourage new hunters.
"Getting young people involved and letting them see deer without spending 12 hours sitting on a stump, it really makes a difference to have those young people interact with those animals early on in their hunts," Nicolaou says.
Across the country, hunting is on the decline. Younger people aren’t picking up the sport like their parents and grandparents did. According to the Michigan DNR, the number of state hunting licenses sold today is about half the number sold in the 1990s.
Chad Stewart is the Deer Management Specialist for the state. He’s been tracking deer licenses, which have been down 4.7 percent this year. But Stewart says he’s not convinced that’s due to the ban. He says the department has seen sales decrease by two to four percent each year recently.
"Certainly I would not be surprised if a few individuals did not pursue deer this year because of the baiting and feeding ban," Stewart says. "I don’t know if I’m expecting a massive decline or drop off in total hunter numbers because we haven’t seen that before."
He says the Lower Peninsula had a bait ban from 2008 until 2011 and did not see a large drop off of hunters during that time.
Still, with about 50 to 80 percent of surveyed hunters reporting they use bait, Stewart knows the ban won’t be popular.
And if the DNR sells fewer hunting licenses in Michigan this year there will be less money for habitat restoration programs that protect species like grouse and turkey.
"When you talk about building a house, the foundation is the deer management program that so many other things are reliant upon,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Michigan legislature is working on a bill that would reverse the ban.
Amy Trotter, the executive director of Michigan United Conservation Club, says going against the DNR's rule would be a mistake.
Her organization represents sportsman clubs across the state and she says the voted to support the ban, even though some of the hunters bait.
"For MUCC at least, it’s not about baiting," Trotter says. "It’s about the health of the deer herd. And that’s what’s really important for us to keep at the forefront. We want to make sure deer hunting continues into the future.”
Lawmakers who are against the ban say they don’t agree that bait piles allow diseases to spread.
The state House will review the bill again after the Thanksgiving holiday.
This story aired on Points North. The full show can be found here.