ESCANABA - While not dipping to an all-time low, the deer being brought into the available check stations in the central UP are either close to par or down about a quarter for the start of the 2009 firearm deer hunting season.
The first three days of the season have historically set the mark as far as the final outcome of hunter success. It will be difficult to find out how broad a change may have taken place based on deer registered as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) has closed 51 percent of the usual check stations due to budget cutbacks.
However these numbers are but a part of the total summation.
In December the MDNR will again be mailing out a random survey throughout the state and the totals extrapolated by region will be used as the base line indicator of total harvest.
This process is not unique and is used by the greater share of states, including those with mandatory registration, as the primary indicator.
The number of deer registered will be placed against the results of the mail survey, along with other information including the Deer Camp Survey, so area biologists will be able to see if they parallel and thus provide a constant needed to make it a scientific projection.
There are some who remain skeptical that no such survey can replace the manual inventory method, but be assured it is very common to see harvest assessments done just this way.
By the third day of season, local check-in points had witnessed a slight to moderate drop in numbers.
The Rusty Rail in Cornell was within two deer of matching last year's numbers and they still had two hours to go that day. In Escanaba, the MDNR station had also come close to 2008 with numbers down by a few.
Terry McFadden, biologist from Marquette said numbers were down with 58 registered as of Tuesday where 74 had been registered in 2008, with mostly 2.5 year old bucks being presented. His speculation is the lack of year and a half year olds reflects the harsh winter more than hunter selection.
According to MDNR biologist Craig Albright, the early numbers are not alarming locally, however he remains concerned about the season total when placed against the 10-year average.
Season prospects weren't the best coming into the opener, as projections from the impact of last winter played a big role in a dismal forecast.
In the eastern UP, Wildlife Supervisor Terry Minzey expected a continuation of reduced numbers that were seen in 2007, perhaps even worse with numbers down as much as 22 percent. Reports from the Newberry check station are bearing out those projections.
The western UP had less snowfall than the east, however the winter temperatures and brisk winds that used to be part of the Winter Severity Indexing System used by the MDNR had an impact on the health of deer and numbers in some areas (except the south) may be down as much as 13 percent by the end of hunting season.
Having the opportunity to talk with hundreds of hunters during the 16-day firearm hunting period, I get an ear full of comments from hunters ranking their season as good, bad or otherwise.
I must say the biggest negative impact on the deer being expressed to me so far this year is predation by coyotes. Their mere presence has changed the movement habits of deer to a more nocturnal state.
A lot of hunters using trail cameras have seen a good number of deer, including bucks, although most were photographed in the evening hours under the cover of darkness.
Mild weather has certainly afforded more time to sit out so some hunters are making a full day of it. Those hunting the edges of fields or food plots are seeing action around dusk.
Bait hunters are drawing in some does but there is not a whole lot of reports of a strong rut. I would speculate about half of the hunters I talked with who did shoot a buck noted it was chasing a doe at the time.
Conservation officers remain busy as well. Sgt. Darryl Shann remarked that the officers working Menominee County have been busy and finding a lot of places where non-resident hunters have been illegally obtaining local tags to hunt.
They also indicate areas of state land that have historically held campers are low. "They're not using vacation time to stay out the full week given that they have almost three full weekends to hunt," said Shann.
It should also be noted a lot of hunters are exercising restraint in buck selection, something that has seen increased attention from campaigns like that from UP Whitetails Association, Inc., and their "Let-em go - Let-em Grow" promotion.
I believe hunters are also more aware of age class advancement since the days of Quality Deer Management, most continuing to do so on a voluntary basis. It still has to incorporate all aspects of management, including vital habitat maintenance to be successful.
The fact is we won't know the final results until the beginning of 2010 and all the numbers are tallied. Until then, we still have a great opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors with the second week of hunting that includes the Thanksgiving weekend.
Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.