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Because of 2004's poor spring, yearly buck class is down
Sunday, November 13, 2005
By Bob Gwizdz
Spring of 2004 may be just a distant memory, but it figures prominently in the outlook for Tuesday's opening day of firearms deer season.

Winter held on that year; spring was late in arriving, colder than normal and included several unusually heavy rainfalls, which caused significant flooding. As a result, fawn survival was poor.

"At the time, we didn't think it had much of an impact, but it did," said Rod Clute, deer specialist at the Department of Natural Resources. "I can't tell you if it was 20 percent greater loss than usual or 30 percent or what, but it was widespread. The northern Lower Peninsula, Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin are saying the same thing: We're just not seeing the 2004 age class.

"Yearling bucks represent anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the (buck) harvest, depending on the part of the state. So, we're expecting the deer harvest to be smaller than it has been last year or the year before, with the reduction coming from northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula."

How much smaller this year's kill will be remains to be seen. Clute doesn't expect it to match last year's estimated 450,000 unless the harvest in southern Michigan climbs.

And it could. The southern Michigan deer kill has been climbing in recent years and accounted for 58 percent of the deer taken last year.

"We've still got a lot of deer in southern Michigan," Clute said.

But there could be a plus side to the reduced fawn survival, Clute added. With fewer animals competing for food, they are in better physical condition, Accompanied by this summer's excellent food production, antler production should be exceptional.

"It's entirely possible we're going to see some very good yearling deer out there this year," he said. "We've had excellent acorns, apples, cherries -- as far as we can tell, all the mast was outstanding this year."

The poor 2004 fawn crop comes on the heels of what appears to be a successful, multi-year campaign to reduce the size of the deer herd in the northern two-thirds of the state. As a result, wildlife officials have cut way back on antlerless permits everywhere in the north with the exception of the tuberculosis zone.

"We've had a major reduction (in antlerless licenses) in the northwest Lower Peninsula," Clute said. "Basically, there are no public land antlerless licenses in the northwest LP and two counties -- Lake and Wexford -- have no antlerless licenses at all. Many of the surrounding counties have reduced private land licenses as well."

The DNR believes there are still too many deer in the TB zone in the northeast Lower Peninsula.

"We've still got a lot of deer in that area," Clute said. "The incident of TB in the core area is below 2 percent. We're delighted with that, but we want to see it lower. We still believe we need to keep the pressure on that deer herd in that area."

Southern Michigan stands in significant contrast to the northern two-thirds of the state. Officials believe the herd is still expanding; they're offering more antlerless licenses for southern Michigan counties this year and they've changed some regulations to try to put more pressure on the herd. The DNR has added four counties -- Ottawa, Washtenaw, Oakland and Sanilac -- to the area that is open for the late Dec. 19-Jan. 1 antlerless-only season.

In addition, muzzleloader season will open a week earlier and last longer than usual this year in southern Michigan.

Muzzleloader seasons are Dec. 2-11 in the UP, Dec. 9-18 in the northern Lower and Dec. 2-18 in southern Michigan.

"For the last couple of years, southern Michigan muzzleloaders were shooting three times as many antlerless deer as they were antlered bucks and we want to target those antlerless deer," Clute said. "By giving them an additional week, maybe they'll take even more."

Despite the smaller herd in the northern two-thirds of the state, DNR officials are "not worried about killing too many" antlerless deer, Clute said.

"Outside of the bovine TB area, we're fairly comfortable with where the deer herd is," he said. "We know that many hunters disagree and think we went too far, but they're comparing it to the heydays of the late '80s and early '90s where there were too many deer up there.

"There are places where there may be too few deer. We took steps in places like Lake and Wexford counties to try to reverse it. We're looking, in the future, at a maintenance harvest of antlerless deer.''

Returns from bow season are mixed. Clute said hunting pressure seemed to be down, perhaps because of the unusually warm fall weather.

"But, archers have been seeing deer and some very respectable deer are being taken," he said.

Although chronic wasting disease has not been detected, an outbreak of eastern equine encephalitis -- several animals in Kent County, one in Montcalm and one in Ionia -- has some hunters concerned. But because all the infected animals came from a 25-mile area, Clute said, the outbreak appears to be localized and hunters shouldn't be concerned about any healthy looking animals they see. They should, however, wear insect repellent during warm weather.

Overall, the DNR estimates the deer population at 1.6 million to 1.7 million animals, about a half million fewer than peak populations in the mid '90s.

"The regrettable part is it's all come from the UP and northern Michigan," Clute said. "We'd like to see that reduction come from southern Michigan also."
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