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Michigan hunting in major decline — why that matters

From a high of 785,000 deer hunters in 1998, the number of licenses sold for Michigan's firearm deer-hunting season last year was down to 621,000 — a nearly 21 percent decline.

Hunting, and to a lesser extent fishing, are on the decline in Michigan — with a particularly alarming drop in hunting that's only going to get steeper, as the baby boomers who have driven the sport for decades age and drop away.

This could pose a crisis in how Michigan funds its wildlife and habitat programs; have a huge, negative impact on the state's economy, and raises the specter of deer overpopulation, accompanying animal diseases and increases in car-deer accidents.

From a high of 785,000 deer hunters in 1998, the number of licenses sold for Michigan's firearm deer-hunting season last year was down to 621,000 — a nearly 21 percent decline. And those remaining hunters are graying, with most in their late 40s to late 60s, according to a demographic analysis conducted by Michigan Technological University. By 2035, projections are that the late-'90s rate will be cut by more than half.

That group of hunters will continue to decline and then reach a dramatic collapse as age forces them out of the woods almost collectively, with nothing near adequate replacement numbers behind them in younger generations.

That matters whether you love, loathe or are indifferent to hunting and fishing. License fees and surcharges on hunting and fishing gear purchases fund most of the wildlife management and habitat preservation and restoration work done by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. And hunting contributes $2.3 billion annually to Michigan's economy and supports more than 34,000 jobs, according to the DNR.

"People who hunt and fish in this state have really paid for conservation in this state, over a very long time," DNR Director Keith Creagh said.

Michigan's highly lucrative hunt, for decades, has been driven by one population cohort: white, male baby boomers, said Richelle Winkler, an associate professor in Michigan Tech's Department of Social Sciences and author of the hunting demographics study.

Michigan's highly lucrative hunt, for decades, has been driven by one population cohort: white, male baby boomers, said Richelle Winkler, an associate professor in Michigan Tech's Department of Social Sciences and author of the hunting demographics study.

"Those hunters, those people in that generation, have participated in hunting at very high rates throughout their whole life, compared to other generations," she said. "And there are a lot of them."

Younger people are still getting outdoors — they're just not hunting. State park attendance and trail usage are at all-time highs, and activities such as bird-watching, paddleboarding and kayaking are soaring.

Looming in the demographic data on hunters is an upcoming wall — an age where the physical rigors of hunting lead to a near-complete dropout. Historically, it has been around age 70, the data shows. While passionate baby boomers are pushing that wall farther out, a point will come where they have to hang up the hunter's orange for good.

James Wandrie of Royal Oak has hunted for most of his 73 years, and has no intention of stopping soon. But as he readied last week to head north to Port Hope in the Thumb for a few days of bow-hunting before switching it up for the opening day of firearm deer season Thursday, he acknowledged that accommodations to his age are becoming required.

"I've got bad legs," he said. "I may have to get rid of my tree stand. I'll see how much problem I have getting up into it. If I have too much problem, I'll just hunt from the ground."

Wandrie is part of the demographic that has been the lifeblood of Michigan wildlife and ecological management: white, male, baby boomers who hunt and fish if not every year, most years.

While the DNR is expanding educational, social and mentoring opportunities to draw in younger hunters and women — a group that's actually on the rise from its near-nonexistent numbers of the past — the challenge to sufficiently replace the older hunters dropping out is difficult.

Branch County hunter Tony LaPratt has built a career out of creating optimal hunting grounds for others. His Ultimate Land Management company has improved conditions on the ground at 1,800 hunting camps in 38 U.S. states since the mid-1980s, he said.

"I come in and show them how to build buck beds, doe beds, fawning areas, make food plots more attractive to the deer," he said.

LaPratt, 57, increasingly notices a particular clientele.

"Who's hired me the most are grandpas," he said. "They are hiring me because their grandkids don't want to hunt with them, because they're not seeing any deer. In the old days, we would hunt for days to see deer. Now, everybody wants to see instant deer."

Kids can hunt. Do they want to?

Kevin Donley can relate. The 56-year-old from Pleasant Ridge grew up "a Detroit city boy with no understanding of hunting whatsoever, no exposure." A girlfriend's dad when Donley was in his 20s got him hooked. He now hunts deer, turkey and pheasants, and has bow-hunted other animals across the country, from bear to moose to mountain lion.

"It was a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life," he said. "A chance to see hundreds of animals a year, being in nature, seeing it wake up, seeing it go to sleep."

Donley is now married with four children: three boys, ages 15, 13 and 11, and a 9-year-old daughter.

"They weren't born on a farm or had any knowledge of the woods, but they have a dad who's very into the outdoors," he said. "They grew up with me going on hunting trips."

Seeking to instill that love in his kids, Donley bought 80 acres with a hunting cabin in Jackson. He calls getting them into hunting "a work in progress."

"I grew up seeing this change — one or two generations removed from the field, the instant-gratification generation," he said.

"They need constant stimuli. And then there's the anti-hunting push they hear, too."

Kevin Donley readies to bow-hunt in Jackson with his daughter, Samantha, 8, on Sept. 22, 2018, during the annual Michigan Youth Hunt. (Photo: Kevin Donley)

Donley said he lets his kids bring their technology with them into the deer blind.

"I let them play their video games," he said. "And when there's a deer in the area, I give them a nudge."

The reaction of Donley's kids has been all over the board. His oldest boy has bagged two bucks and loves it, he said. His third-oldest son took a deer at age 8, but got grossed out seeing it gutted in the field. His youngest daughter took a shot at her first deer at age 7. "She mostly likes to wear the camo and get her face painted," Donley said.

Samantha Donley, 8, of Pleasant Ridge, looks down the sights of her crossbow while hunting with her father, Kevin Donley, in Jackson on Sept. 22, 2018. (Photo: Kevin Donley)

Donley's second-oldest son, however, "after three years decided he'd rather go fishing," he said. And "he's in Fortnite world," referring to the wildly popular online video game.

The State of Michigan is trying to help. In 2012, it removed the minimum age to hunt, which had previously been 12 years old, to no lower age limit, provided the young hunter is with a mentor over age 21. Mentored youths under age 10 can get a combination spring and fall turkey license, deer and small game license, fur bearers trapping license, and fish for all species for only $7.50. Those licenses would cost more than $60 for an adult.

The emergence of the crossbow has also been a boost to youth hunting, Donley said. "There's no big bang; there's a scope on it," he said. "An adult can set the bow and hand it to them. It's very accurate."

Donley said he knows the story of the Michigan hunt's decline, and the inescapable demographic wall looming out there for the largest group of hunters. But he remains optimistic that as younger people are exposed to hunting, "there's a chance we might not lose them."

"The young kids don't know where their food comes from," he said. "But as they get older, and more conscious about it, knowing that their (hunting-harvested) food doesn't have chemicals, preservatives, can have a real appeal. The whole farm-to-table translates well to field-to-table as well."

Baby boomers born to hunt

Who hunts in Michigan hasn't really evolved. It's the same group, over and over again.

"I think it’s a combination of a lot of factors, that together created something like the perfect storm for white, male baby boomers to participate in hunting," Winkler said.

They may have grown up in more urban areas, but they were only one generation removed from rural life, she said. Their parents grew up on a farm, and maybe their grandparents still lived on one, she said. They tended to have more extensive experience and comfort with firearms, their fathers and uncles serving in World War II, and them perhaps serving in Vietnam, or at least in military service before the draft ended in 1973.

They also had increased time for leisure and recreational activities, Winkler said.

"This was the first generation that had a pretty clear 40-hour workweek, with vacation time built in," she said.

With fewer competing alternatives, getting out into nature was a particularly desired pastime, and the baby boomers had more financial resources and fewer household demands than prior generations, Winkler said.

But that changed with later generations, whose interests and leisure possibilities expanded greatly.

"That traditional notion of masculinity associated with providing for the family, being an outdoors person, providing the food ... that culture of masculinity has changed," Winkler said.

Stopping the free fall

The DNR is putting significant effort into recruiting and retaining younger hunters, female hunters and families hunting together.

But at least one researcher questioned how far down that road the state should go.

While hunting and fishing may be on the decline, younger generations are still enjoying Michigan's outdoors. State park visits reached an all-time high last year, at more than 27 million visits, Creagh said. More than 1.1 million camping nights were spent in Michigan, second only to California, he said. And Michigan is a national leader in its ORV trails and rails-to-trails programs.

Nationally, 20 percent of Americans participate in bird-watching excursions. And paddle sports — stand-up paddleboards, canoes and kayaks — are among the fastest-growing sports in Michigan and nationally. The DNR, with partners, has established more than 3,000 miles of "water trails" in the state, promoted on the website www.michiganwatertrails.org.

Winkler, the Michigan Tech study author, said the DNR should not push too hard to try to create a new cohort of hunters like the baby boomers. It can't and won't happen again — the world has simply changed too much.

"I think they need to be a little more attentive to stakeholders outside of hunters and anglers, in terms of what their interests are, being sure we are able to provide opportunities," she said.

While that's happening, with heightened emphasis on park, camping and trail experiences, the DNR is also continuing to stop the free fall in hunting.

The DNR's Mi-Hunt website provides prospective hunters with detailed maps of public lands available for hunting. A hunters access program teams with private landowners to provide hunting opportunities for the public. An education program prepared for grade-school teachers provides information on natural resources, wildlife management "and the role people who hunt and fish play," Creagh said.

The state Legislature in 2013 created the Michigan Wildlife Council, a nine-member board appointed by the governor consisting of hunters, anglers and representatives from agriculture, retail and advertising. Its mission: Get the word out to everyone how important to Michigan's ecology and economy hunting and fishing are. A $1 surcharge on hunting and fishing licenses funds the effort.

Costs for resource and wildlife management that hunters once carried almost exclusively will likely be expanded to other users of state natural resources, Creagh said. And the DNR is increasingly looking to partner with other state agencies and private companies on projects that contain a desired natural resources outcome, he said.

"How do you share some of those costs, maximize multiple values and multiple uses?" he said. "Hunters like to use the trails to get into the woods, too."

Women hunt, too

Dawn Freeland remembers watching her father and brother heading out hunting, and asking to go herself.

"My dad would say, 'It's not for girls — go see what your Mom is doing in the kitchen.' That type of thing," she said.

Freeland ultimately didn't take that now politically incorrect advice. The 55-year-old resident of Bailey in Muskegon County is the purveyor of the Women Hunt Too Facebook page, which has more than 320,000 followers. Then there's her womenhunttoo.com, womenfishtoo.com and womencamptoo.com web pages, featuring blogs, events, recipes and merchandise.

She's part of the one group of hunters in Michigan that's on the rise: women. From about 65,000 female deer hunters in 2013, that number is expected to grow to 100,000 female hunters by 2035, according to the Michigan Tech demographic study.

The same holds true for fishing in Michigan. While male-dominated fishing is expected to decline from 707,000 licensed anglers in 2014 to fewer than 650,000 by 2035, female anglers' numbers are expected to rise slightly over that time period, from 180,000 to nearly 200,000.

"Hunting for women 50 years ago was pretty nonexistent," Winkler said. "It’s an increasingly popular activity with younger generations of women. They are making up right now for some percentage of that decline, but their numbers aren’t big enough to make up for those declining numbers of male hunters."

Freeland said her popular page grew organically from her own enthusiastic Facebook posts about hunting.

"I couldn't find anybody out there who was like me," she said. "It was rare to find another woman who loved outdoor things as much as I did. To find that certain niche (on social media) — 'There are women out there like that!' "

Freeland and her future husband met in high school, and he was an avid hunter, just like her father and brother. He'd take her along into the woods, but she'd usually bring along a book.

"I was curious, but didn't quite get it," she said.

Then she looked up from her book one trip, saw a doe and fawn moving over a fresh blanket of snow in front of her, a backdrop of trees and pines.

"It was like one of those moments in time off a calendar or something," she said. "I thought, 'Oh, wow. This is gorgeous. This is amazing.' "

As firearm deer season ended, she asked her husband what season came next. From muzzle-loading to spring turkeys and from then on, she was hooked.

Having grown up on a farm and around the men in her family hunting, the killing and dressing of a harvested animal didn't deter Freeland.

"Women like being self-sufficient, knowing they can feed their family if they have to," she said. "It's a bonus that it's healthy meat. That concerns a lot of people right now with hormones, antibiotics. Organic is all the rage right now. You can't get more organic than that."

Freeland has exhibits at hunting expos and shows, and does about 40 radio interviews a year.

Her advice to prospective women hunters: Start with a hunter safety course.

"They will help you on what to do, what not to do, where to go," she said.

Agencies such as the DNR, and sporting goods stores such as Cabela's, often offer low-cost or free hunting and fishing classes, she said. And Google and YouTube have tons of tips as well.

"Just get out there, and enjoy the nature you're missing," she said. "Hunting, fishing, camping, just taking a walk down your cul-de-sac."

An uncertain future

Sixteen counties in southern Michigan have movement restrictions and testing requirements on harvested deer because of chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a fatal nervous system disease found in deer, moose, and elk, that has been found in wild deer in the area.

Jackson County, where Donley hunts, was added to the list this year. "They are giving us 10 doe permits per person, so they clearly want us to manage that herd," he said.

But as hunting dwindles, how many deer can remaining hunters be expected to kill? Donley said programs such as Hunt.Fish.Feed can be expanded, providing harvested game to kitchens helping hungry and homeless people in urban areas, including Detroit.

For years, Huron-Clinton Metroparks has kept its deer herds under control through culling, paying professional sharpshooters to kill as many deer as deemed necessary for population control. Could that be coming to suburban areas looking to reduce car-deer accidents, when low hunting numbers no longer do the job? Or to areas where CWD or bovine tuberculosis are spreading in a too-large deer herd?

"Bringing in a bunch of professional snipers and just eliminate the deer. ... It could end up that way, but that would be sad," Donley said. "Then we would really be disconnected from the outdoor world."

Creagh is determined to see Michigan never gets to that point.

"I have great confidence in the people who hunt in this state," he said.

But as the users of the state's natural resources shift from hunting and fishing to other recreational activities, DNR policy-making remains dominated by hunting and fishing baby boomers, Winkler said.

"It’s funny for me personally to go to these Natural Resources Commission meetings and I’m the only one in the room who doesn’t work for the DNR, who is under age 60 and female," she said.

While women and people of color participate in fishing in particular, "you don’t see them represented in the big fishing clubs that have an ear with the DNR," Winkler said. "They're not very well represented in decision-making. The DNR could do a better job integrating those people into the process."

Creagh didn't disagree, and cited efforts such as the DNR's Michigan Outdoor Adventure Center in downtown Detroit, and fish stocking and spawning habitat restoration on the Detroit River, where many people of color fish and recreate.

"The whole conversation about the riverfront, connectivity, Belle Isle, the Outdoor Adventure Center, that's all about trying to get people comfortable with the outdoors," Creagh said.

Wandrie, for his part, teaches hunter's education to young people.

"We do have some children that really don't want to be there," he said. "But their fathers or grandfathers are hunters, and they say, 'You need to get the training, because somewhere down the line, the hunting may kick in for them.' "

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or kmatheny@freepress.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.

Michigan's deer hunt — "the DNR's Super Bowl"

Hundreds of thousands of hunters from here and elsewhere will take to the Michigan woods later this week, at the start of Michigan's regular firearm deer season. Hunting contributes $2.3 billion to the Michigan economy annually.

"Our Super Bowl is Nov. 15," opening day of the state's regular firearm deer season, Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Keith Creagh said.

Michigan already held deer-hunting seasons for youth hunters and hunters with disabilities in late September and October. Remaining deer seasons:

  • Archery: Oct. 1 - Nov. 14 and Dec. 1 - Jan. 1, 2019
  • Regular firearm: Nov. 15-30
  • Muzzleloading:
  • Zone 1 (Upper Peninsula): Dec. 7-16
  • Zone 2 (Northern Lower Peninsula): Dec. 7-16
  • Zone 3 (Southern Michigan): Dec. 7-23
  • Late antlerless firearm: Dec. 17 - Jan.1, 2019

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