Deer hunting is declining in Michigan. In the late 1990’s, almost 800,000 people were hunting deer in the state. Twenty years later, that number has dropped by around 25 percent.
A new ban on deer baiting is likely to further that trend.
But the Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the ban is necessary for the long-term health of the state’s deer herd.
A different kind of hunting
Almost every day, Larry Martin goes to FPS Archery shop in Cadillac to shoot his bow. Today, he pulls his bowstring back and takes aim at a paper target about 20 yards away. The arrow flies and hits the target with a satisfying thwack.
“Best sound in the world, right there,” he says.
Martin is 74 years old and hunts deer at his camp near Copemish.
“I still climb trees and do it all the way I used to when I was young,” Martin says proudly.
He says a ban on deer baiting won’t affect him since he doesn’t use bait; but he knows plenty of other hunters who do.
“I know it’s going to hurt them because you can’t just go set a blind in the woods and have deer come walking by it like you do if you put some corn out there,” he explains.
A contagious nightmare
On January 31, a ban on deer baiting went into effect all across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. It’s meant to stop the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease among the state’s deer herd. CWD is a neurological disease that spreads to other deer through contact with saliva, urine, and feces.
DNR Communications Coordinator Katie Keen says it can spread fast.
“Getting animals all coming in to the same location chewing on sugar beets, or carrots, or apples, and going to the bathroom and eating in the same places – they can just contaminate each other,” Keen says.
So far in Michigan about 120 deer have tested positive for CWD, but in neighboring Wisconsin the disease has spread to over 5,200 deer. DNR statistics show that over 50 percent of Michigan hunters used bait piles during the 2017 deer season.
Keen says a ban on baiting will contribute to a decline in deer hunting in the short-term, but doing nothing would be worse.
“We gotta look at the big picture and how to manage responsibly,” Keen says.
Good for hunting; bad for business
At FPS Archery in Cadillac, shop owner Kim Fortelka has two reactions to the ban: one as a hunter and one as a business owner.
He says the bait ban has the potential to make for better hunting because deer won’t be influenced by large bait piles and will be more active throughout the day. But Fortelka says baiting has conditioned some hunters to be lazy and that style of hunting might be all they know.
“Now trying to teach people or re-educate people that they’re going to have to work harder to get back into the successful range – there’s a lot of people who just aren’t willing to put that effort into it,” Fortelka says.
Which is why as a business owner, he’s very concerned business is going to drop.
Combine the people who’ve never hunted without bait with older hunters who aren’t as mobile, and Fortelka estimates the deer bait ban could decrease his profits by 25 percent. He says a few hunters who had holds on new bows have already changed their minds.
“Because they hadn’t seen many deer and they weren’t going to be able to bait next year, so they didn’t want to have … any new equipment,” he recalls.
A decline in Michigan’s hunting economy trickles down to other economies as well. Tourism, hospitality, and agriculture all stand to lose something if Michigan continues to lose hunters. Conservation funding in the state would also suffer as hunting licenses help pay for conservation efforts.
Katie Keen of the Michigan DNR recognizes that, but she hopes the new law can be a gateway for innovation among hunting products.
“Anytime we have some type of regulation change, you have to look for other avenues,” she says. “‘Okay, so what am I going to do?’ And it seems like that’s where product is developed. And all of a sudden, there’s a new method or thing out there that gets people excited.”
Health is paramount
Keen says for hunting ultimately to thrive in Michigan there needs to be a healthy deer herd, which is why the DNR says the bait ban is necessary.
“And it hurts in the beginning, but we’re looking at the goal in the end,” says Keen. “To have hunters to continue to hunt deer is very important. And so, this might be hard for this year and maybe next season, but we’re hoping people can see past that.”
The deer bait ban in the Lower Peninsula is indefinite, but they have been reversed in the past.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of deer with CWD found in Michigan.