Upper Peninsula deer harvest down in 2023

By John Pepin

Michigan DNR

MARQUETTE — The 2023 firearm deer season is officially complete. Although there are still deer hunting opportunities happening in December, we know most of our 2023 hunter effort is officially in the books.

The license sales and harvest data are mixed throughout the state.

Harvest figures

The reported deer harvest for the entire state is down compared with last year by a total of 11%, or almost 30,000 deer. This is certainly significant in the eyes of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and something that is being closely watched. There are many factors that can contribute to the reduction of harvest.

Reported deer harvest in Michigan as of Dec. 5, 2023 (all deer seasons) decreased compared with the autumn of 2022 by 26% in the Upper Peninsula, 16% in the northern Lower Peninsula and 7% in the southern Lower Peninsula.

Taking a look at where the highest harvest totals are within Michigan’s 83 counties, it is no surprise they come in the southern portion of the state. Significantly milder winters and abundance of food from agriculture continue to support high deer density where these conditions exist.

Harvest reporting update

This is just the second year of a required harvest report.

The historical method of estimating the deer season harvest would have relied on a random sample of hunters, who were mailed a paper survey, at the end of the deer season.

Although that method will be continued to be able to further our understanding of the relationship between the old survey and the new harvest reporting data, the required harvest provides a real-time evaluation between years that has previously not been available.

It is too early to tell whether harvest reporting has improved this year compared to last.

One of the major changes to the system includes a removal of the required pin drop for harvest location and instead asking hunters to select a township, range, and section from a map grid. The average time to complete a harvest report dropped from 3.7 minutes in 2022 to just 2.9 minutes in 2023.

The rate of hunters not reporting their harvest is currently unknown and could add a significant margin of error to the harvest decline.

More harvest data

All 15 U.P. counties have recorded individual drops (all deer seasons) below 2022. Those declines range from 10.9% in Mackinac County to more than 40% in Gogebic (40.6%), Marquette (40.1%) and Ontonagon (42.2%) counties. Six counties in the U.P. reported declines greater than 35%.

The reported Michigan statewide harvest during the firearm deer season statewide decreased by 11.9%. Other Great Lakes states, including Wisconsin (-17.6%) and Minnesota (-7.4%) have also recorded harvest percentage declines during their gun deer seasons.

When reviewing the preliminary data available through Dec. 5 from the Midwest, the northern states appear to have very similar reductions in harvest.


Hunters in the U.P. have expressed a great deal of anger, frustration and concern with the low reported deer harvest this year.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources hears, appreciates and empathizes with those reactions, as DNR wildlife managers are also concerned with the reported harvest numbers.

In October, the DNR issued a U.P. season preview that stated:

Deer numbers remain low in many locations, especially along the Lake Superior shoreline and in the western counties and even some locations in the eastern U.P., which will again temper expectations of overall harvest in the U.P. The southern portions of the U.P., including parts of Menominee, Delta and even Dickinson counties, seem to have consistent deer numbers, and another good year is anticipated for those areas. But to be clear, there will be places in the U.P. where deer densities remain low, and hunting efforts in some of these locations will prove extremely challenging.

Even in those three counties predicted to have good harvest numbers, Menominee, Delta and Dickinson counties posted declines of 18.2%, 20.7% and 26% respectively.

To effect positive change, hunters, wildlife managers, landowners, foresters and others need to work together cooperatively, each doing what they can to help, given their own limitations.

We’ve been here before.

In 2015, the buck harvest in the U.P. bottomed out at an estimated 17,000. Two years later in 2017, buck harvest in the U.P. eclipsed 30,000.

The deer herd will come back.

The DNR has maintained many conservative deer management recommendations since 2015. There is no reason to think that the herd won’t bounce back in a few years, barring unforeseen severe winter weather.

Limiting factors

In Michigan, there are numerous factors that may act singularly or in combination to influence deer abundance, and they can vary over space and time.

Some of these factors have a greater impact on deer populations and thus are more important than others. In addition, some of these limiting factors can be managed by state wildlife agencies, while others cannot.

Predators (including wolves), winter weather, habitat quality, changes to deer harvest regulations, declining hunter numbers and changes in timber harvest all play a combined role in changes to the deer population in the Upper Peninsula.

Numerous factors can also affect deer harvest. For example, given that 50% of the deer harvests in rifle season occur within the first three to four days, unusual weather at the beginning of the season can decrease harvest, like the warm, windy days we had this season. Even what day of the week the opener falls on can change harvest.


Wolves, more so than other predators, are often blamed for a lack of deer in the U.P.

From 2009 through 2022, the buck harvest throughout all hunting seasons has fluctuated up and down in association with severe winter occurrences.

Meanwhile, wolf population estimates have remained relatively stable, indicating something besides wolves is affecting the deer numbers — that something is severe winters, deer wintering habitat and even summer food availability.

When deer numbers decline, it is not because wolf numbers have increased, and when deer numbers increase, it is not because wolf numbers have declined.

Deer co-evolved with predators and, as such, have developed predator avoidance behaviors (selecting habitat outside of wolf core areas) and physical characteristics that increase survival (fast speed, wide field of view).

Some hunters and others question the results of DNR surveys, which calculate minimum population estimates for wolves in the U.P. (643 average since 2010), with some suggesting the true population is more likely in the range 2,000 to 3,000 animals.

The DNR acknowledges the number is an estimated minimum calculated during winter surveys when wolf numbers are at their lowest, before the birth of pups, which have a relatively high mortality rate.

The DNR has set out hundreds of trail cameras across the region to help assess wolf numbers. This is part of a new survey approach, which is expected to work in concert with the traditional aerial wolf surveys which occur every other winter.

Given the amount of land in the Upper Peninsula providing suitable habitat for wolves (roughly 10,600 square miles), an average pack size of 4.8 wolves and a median wolf territory size of 82 square miles, the number of wolves resulting given these limiting factors would be similar to minimum estimates the DNR is finding in its surveys.

The “Factors Limiting Deer Abundance in the Upper Peninsula” complete report shows that predation from wolves has a relatively small impact on the deer population.

This is because wolves are not the main predator on fawns, and fawn survival is what drives the deer population changes in most years. Other fawn predators include coyotes, bears and bobcats.

In studies elsewhere in the U.S., including some with no wolves present and one with no predators at all, fawn survival rate was measured at 45%.

During the U.P. Predator-Prey study, which took place over nine years (2009-2019) within three varying snow depth zones, indicated the U.P. fawn survival rate was 47%.

While wolves do prey on adult deer, adult deer survival is quite high. Predation from wolves is simply one portion of what impacts the deer herd in the U.P.

Winter conditions

Since 1996, the Upper Peninsula experienced more than three times as many severe winters than between 1980 and 1996, along with three instances of back-to-back and two instances of three consecutive severe winters.

Severe winters are those with more than 90 days with snow depth of a foot or more. Some factors affecting winter snow depth would include climate change and Lake Superior not freezing over, which provides more moisture to generate lake effect snowfall.

Buck harvest was at an all-time high from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, and winters were noticeably milder during this time.

The consecutive severe winters beginning in 1996 and 1997 have resulted in periodic declines in buck harvest since then. Since 2013, eight of the 11 winters (73%) have been severe, impacting buck harvest, further restricting the growth of the U.P.’s deer herd.

Hunter demographics

Reviewing license sales numbers through the end of November 2023, overall, for the state, about 590,000 people obtained a deer tag, which is 1% more compared with last year at this time.

The total number of deer tags sold was 1.3 million, which is 2% more than last year. Nonresident hunters continued the decade-long upward trend totaling about 25,000, which is up 3% over last year.

Since 1995, the DNR has sold hunting licenses using an electronic license sales system (i.e., retail sales system). This system has allowed the DNR to maintain a central database containing sales information on every license sold.

This information is used to track changes in the number of deer hunting license buyers.

Among the key findings:

— In 1995, deer hunting licenses were sold to 872,000 people, while in 2019, licenses were sold to 582,000 people. This represents a 33% decline or an average decline of 1.7% per year.

— Participation has declined with each generation.

— The pace of decline has increased in recent years.

— The current level of youth recruitment is the lowest the DNR has recorded since 1995.

— The DNR predicts that 434,000 people will purchase a deer hunting license in 2030. This represents a 25% decline from the number of license buyers in 2019.

These declines are part of a national trend, with very few exceptions, especially when looking at states that have experienced little to no population growth in decades, such as Michigan.

Hunters are getting older on average and recruiting at lower rates.

Over the years, there have been fewer license buyers for all age classes in the middle of the age curve (i.e., between approximately 12 and 55 years of age).

However, there were increased hunter numbers among the youngest and oldest age classes. The increased hunter numbers in the oldest age classes likely represented the rising share of older people in the population as the baby boom generation aged.

In addition, the legalization of crossbow use during the archery season probably increased participation among hunters in the oldest age classes.

The increased participation among the youngest hunters likely reflected the lowering of the minimum age requirements. In 2012, the minimum age requirement to hunt deer with a firearm was eliminated (mentors are required), while hunters had to be at least 10 years old to participate in 2008.

Rates of participation for deer hunting generally increased among generations until peaking among people born during 1944-1960 (baby boomers) but has declined among more recent generations.

The decline in hunter numbers has been widespread across the state. Since 2000, the greatest rates of decline have been in metro Detroit and in portions of the U.P.

The declines in Detroit are particularly troubling because the highest densities of license buyers reside in this area.

The total youth population in Michigan has declined 0.7% per year during the last six years, while the number of youth hunters has declined 7.1% per year. If this annual rate of decline continues, we could expect the number of youth hunters will be cut in half in less than 10 years.

While some limited increases in hunting license sales have occurred, including during the coronavirus pandemic, the overall trend of hunting license purchases is downward.

Things the DNR doesn’t currently control

The DNR manages resources on behalf of all the residents of the state of Michigan but can only do so within its authority. There are legal limits to what the department can do.

Just as we can’t magically turn a dial and reduce deer numbers in southern Michigan right now, we can’t magically turn a dial and increase deer in the U.P.

We cannot control the weather, the amount of snowfall given areas will receive throughout the course of a given winter, nor the relative severity of winter.

Additional things beyond DNR control:

— Gray wolves remain a protected species given federal court rulings in lawsuits that have kept wolves on the List of Endangered and Threatened Species. This status prohibits a wolf hunt, no matter its provisions.

— The Michigan DNR supports removing wolves from the endangered species list, citing among its reasons the recovery of wolves in the state after meeting, exceeding and maintaining population levels far beyond original recovery goals. A 2019 letter from the DNR to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service clearly states the department’s position supporting delisting.

— Even if wolves were delisted, the DNR does not have the authority to authorize a harvest season. This authority lies with the Natural Resources Commission or through legislative action.

— The number of deer hunters has steadily declined overall since the mid-1990s.

— The amount of hunter time and effort spent afield, hunter support for DNR initiatives, hunter activism and hunter efforts to recruit, retain and reactivate the sport’s dwindling participation at all levels.

Actions taken by the DNR to address low deer numbers in the U.P.

The DNR has taken numerous actions, often in concert with partnering groups, agencies or individuals, to improve deer habitat and low deer numbers.

Deer habitat management is ongoing, including efforts to identify and map more than 50 deer wintering complexes and manage food and winter deer shelters on state-managed lands, according to regional state forest plans.

Biologists have been working to conserve winter shelter for deer, while also enhancing available food resources by planting oak trees and seeding forest openings.

Funding is available for deer habitat management. To have the greatest impact, deer habitat management needs to occur on multiple ownerships, not just state forest lands, with 80% of deer wintering complex habitat located on private or federal lands.

The U.P. Habitat Workgroup has worked for several years to improve habitat for deer in areas where they spend the critical winter months in need of shelter and food.

The charge of the group states: “Deer winter habitat is a critical component of a healthy sustainable deer herd in the Upper Peninsula. In most cases, deer yard complexes span across multiple land ownerships. More than 80% of the existing complexes occur on private and federal land. For this reason, accurate mapping of complex boundaries, the development of cooperative management strategies that span ownerships and communications to the landowners involved are key.”

The workgroup membership is composed of DNR wildlife and forestry employees, federal forest managers, members of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission, and wildlife and forestry interests.

The workgroup effort has focused on identifying important deer wintering complexes, their boundaries and land ownership makeups. It has also involved cooperative conservation and timber harvest strategies that optimize benefits for wildlife and timber production on private lands within complex boundaries.

Through grants and other funding, the workgroup has affected deer improvement on thousands of acres of deer habitat across the U.P., with hundreds of private landowners contacted.

The Deer Habitat Improvement Partnership Initiative, now in its 15th year, is supported by the state’s Deer Range Improvement Program, which is funded by a portion of deer hunting license revenue.

More than 114 initiative projects in nearly all U.P. counties have improved thousands of acres of deer habitat. In 2023, the program crossed the $1 million threshold in hunter license dollars invested on U.P. deer habitat enhancements.

The DNR’s Wildlife Habitat grant program provides funding to enhance and improve the quality and quantity of game species habitat in support of specific goals from the DNR Wildlife Division’s strategic plan, guiding principles and strategies.

Things hunters and the DNR can work on together

Despite the things we cannot control, the DNR and hunters can work on several things together and separately to try to improve the U.P. deer herd and hunter success.

We can support continued initiatives like the U.P. Habitat Workgroup, helping to improve deer wintering habitat on private lands not administered by the DNR.

The DNR and hunters can continue to talk together about issues, problems and solutions to deer management concerns. To help facilitate this type of discussion, hunters could attend and participate in Upper Peninsula Citizens’ Advisory Council monthly meetings where agenda topics are set by the eastern and western U.P. councils’ members.

The councils develop resolutions on various actions, which are provided to the DNR for implementation consideration.

Hunters and the DNR can also continue a dialogue through various forums such as the “Ask the DNR” live television broadcasts where DNR staffers answer questions from the public.

Any questions not addressed on the air are responded to in the days after the broadcasts if the caller leaves a phone number or email address.

Hunters can also offer comments at Michigan Natural Resources Commission meetings, as well as comment when various state and federal agencies seek public opinion on a variety of issues, such as wolf delisting and deer management.

Hunters could work within and among sportsmen’s groups to find consensus on deer management concerns. The DNR can continue to attend the meetings of these groups and offer support for their efforts.

Hunters could advocate for eliminating supplemental feeding of deer. Though legal, feeding deer spreads diseases, causes social strife, kills deer through corn and toxic reactions to high carbohydrates and likely increases deer mortality by drawing deer away from deer wintering complexes and into poor winter habitat.

Hunters and the DNR can think of new ways to work together to confront old problems that are producing limiting effects on the U.P. deer herd.

Hunters and the DNR can continue to respect the others’ viewpoints and work to find additional ways to work together cooperatively.

A new Deer Management Initiative will be starting up early next year.

We need to reevaluate our current management paradigm and develop a set of recommendations in both peninsulas to shift how management occurs, including short-term, actionable items and long-term approaches that take time.

These efforts must be collaborative and use best available science.

The DNR will develop U.P.- and L.P.-specific workgroups representing a diverse set of opinions and values. The groups won’t be formed until January 2024, but will include traditional groups we have historically worked with and unaffiliated hunters and non-hunters who can provide unique perspectives.

The goal of the initiative is to position our deer management to meet future challenges. The workgroups will help develop a broad survey about deer trends to be distributed to hunters and non-hunters. The workgroup participants will attend a multi-day, facilitated meeting to look at data, identify problems and develop recommendations for DNR and NRC action.

Things hunters can do

Report deer harvest to the DNR to help ensure the most accurate harvest reports possible. The more data we are able to collect on deer harvest, the more accurate the results will be when calculating harvest and trends.

Keep abreast of activities of the Michigan Natural Resources Commission (Michigan.gov/NRC). Copies of presentations, contact and background information on commissioners and the commission is available at the webpage. A schedule of upcoming meetings and agendas is also there.

Read significant DNR publications like the Michigan Wolf Management Plan, which is a valuable guide to learning what the DNR will, can and cannot do to manage wolves in Michigan. Find additional DNR wildlife publications online: Michigan.gov/WildlifePublications.

Hunters can help police misinformation on social media platforms by posting positive and factual information and refuting false claims.

Work to introduce new hunters to the sport, including friends, family members and others who have not experienced the outdoors. Support efforts to encourage hunting by youth, veterans and others. Take somebody hunting. Seek out mentorship opportunities sporting groups provide that offer “learn to hunt” types of programs.

Volunteer to work on habitat improvement projects or help others by lending expertise to hunting groups and others seeking grants.

Talk to others about the benefits of hunting and outdoor activity, including promoting hunting to those interested in organic food and homesteading lifestyles.

Hunting groups could find more opportunities to work together for the overall good of deer hunting, habitat improvement and other important concerns.

Make purchases supporting Pittman-Robertson funding for wildlife conservation, habitat restoration, habitat improvement, research and education.

Meeting the challenges to improving deer hunting in some parts of Michigan will take a concerted effort over time to achieve. These challenges are affected by multiple factors.

While hunters may perceive that there are too few deer in some regions of the state, others, like southern Michigan, are confronting too many deer on the landscape creating other complex problems affected also by multiple factors.

Wherever we might call home, we should all ask ourselves what we can contribute positively to the problems we are all working to address, inside and outside the DNR.

We are all in this together.


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