Column: Deer season shows improvement

ESCANABA — Although there’s still the better side of one week left to the 2017 Michigan firearm deer hunting season, things are looking up when compared to last year and especially the two years prior.

The devastating winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15 took a toll on the vast Upper Peninsula (UP) whitetail deer population. One area of the deep snowfall zone saw 80% doe mortality and 100% fawn mortality in the Keweenaw to Gogebic range.

Last year, hunters did acknowledge seeing a few more deer, but the buck harvest was still low when compared to the 10-year average. There was a better fawn crop and an even better growth in general population this year. Numbers at registration points so far indicate some recovery is clearly underway.

According to Chad Stewart, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) deer management specialist from Lansing, “The Upper Peninsula has experienced two relatively mild winters the last two years. Though overall deer numbers are still lower than many hunters like to see, some areas have begun to recover from previous harsh winters nicely. As a result, DNR staff members recommended opening a few additional units to antlerless hunting this year. Deer management units open to public- and private-land antlerless permits includes DMUs 055, 121, 155, and 255. DMU 122 will be open only to private land-antlerless permits. The open units are in the south central portion of the U.P., which typically has higher deer populations than anywhere else in the UP. All other areas in the UP will not have antlerless licenses available. In general, hunters should expect to see a slight increase from the number of deer they saw last year, with increases especially in 1.5- and 2.5-year-old age classes. Keep in mind that each area is influenced by local factors and conditions, which then affects deer density and sightings in that area. The largest bucks (heaviest and largest antlers) typically come from agricultural areas, but nice bucks also are taken from forested areas where access is limited and where they have an opportunity to get older.”

Locally and as of Wednesday morning, numbers are up at the MDNR office with 62 more deer checked than the same time last year, and business was brisk throughout the day.

Wildlife biologist Karen Sexton and technician Colt Luben both said all the hunters checking in are seeing more deer this year. There has also been a swing in age class as the number of 1.5 year old bucks has climbed. Some have had good antler development as the quality of nutrition last summer was good.

A lot of camps closed up this past weekend, but hunters will still be out in pursuit when possible and it is speculated there will be more antlerless harvesting going on as the season nears its end.

For nearly two decades, the Rusty Rail bar/restaurant in Cornell has been registering deer for the MDNR and as of Tuesday afternoon they had surpassed the total deer brought in from the entire previous year with 136 versus last season’s total of 120. Hunter sentiment expressed also indicates that more bucks are being seen, many are small and the appearance of the overall deer herd is up and in good shape.

Even with periods of driving rain, the 20th annual WYKX / Trails & Tales Deer Pole again held and hosted at Hilltop RV Superstore in Escanaba also had an increase of deer registrations for the MDNR, weighing by UP Whitetails volunteers Al Ettenhofer and Kirk Millette, and green scoring of the antler racks by Dave Wellman of Commemorative Bucks of Michigan. Some really nice racks were measured of the 45 presented. Top deer for the night was a ten point scoring 129 and 7/8 inches. Wellman indicated that the difference between the top five was only a difference of 2 inches, a real close contest.

Both the Rusty Rail and the Hilltop RV Deer Pole had an added incentive for hunters to bring in their deer with drawings at random for both adult and youth firearms. The drawing for the Rusty Rail will not be made until the end of season and they remain open everyday, including Thanksgiving, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Nov. 30. Sponsor for the guns at the Rusty Rail is Derouin’s Autobody & Collision of Escanaba, while those at the Deer Pole were provided by Ward’s Autobody & Sales of Escanaba and UP Whitetails Association of Delta County. The winning buck at Hilltop was awarded a $300 certificate towards a mount from North Country Legends Taxidermy. Names of all winners will be published upon the close of the firearm season and gun registration clearing.

The added comments from many hunters so far this season are that the opener timed well with the annual breeding (rut) season. There seems to be an increase in youth hunters and we’re seeing some of the transient hunters returning to the area. Temperatures have remained mild enough for hunters to tolerate long times afield and while the woodlands have seen a lot of rain, access does not appear to be a huge issue. The general consensus also indicates there is less sign of predation which somewhat parallels the downturn in coyote populations that have been the primary source of fawn and mature deer mortality in the south central U.P.

Upon the close of the firearm hunt, the annual UP wide Deer Camp Survey will be tabulated in December and the MDNR will once again issue the mail survey statewide. All the information gathered will be used to determine quotas for Deer Management Units (DMUs) for the 2018 seasons. Hopefully populations will continue to improve and the upcoming winter will be tolerable for deer.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Trails & Tales Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.

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