State should consider raising hunters’ limit

A cherished Michigan tradition resumes today with the opening of the annual firearms deer hunting season in Michigan. And while the number of hunters has declined steadily over the past two decades, deer hunting is an important piece of Michigan’s outdoors economy, generating more than $2 billion a year in revenue.

It is also the most efficient means of managing a deer herd that has exploded thanks to recent mild winters and less hunters.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates the deer population at 1.75 million this fall, an increase of 14 percent over the past two years, thanks to relatively mild winters.

Last year, roughly 575,000 hunters harvested 376,000 deer, a 10 percent increase over 2016. And still the deer herd continues to grow.

The herd is also moving steadily into heavily populated areas. In Metro Detroit, it’s now common to see deer carcasses on the shoulders of busy streets and freeways.

Nearly 50,000 automobile collisions with deer are reported annually in Michigan. In 2016, those crashes resulted in 14 human fatalities and more than 1,200 injuries.

Given that reality, Michigan should consider a more aggressive campaign to encourage deer hunting, including expanding hunter safety classes for youngsters and a longer youth season.

It should also study the benefits of allowing each hunter to take more deer. The current limit of one buck per hunter could be expanded to two in selected counties where the deer population is the most worrisome.

In addition, a healthy deer harvest equates to a healthy deer herd. When the herd becomes too dense, conditions such as chronic wasting disease become more prevalent.

The DNR has taken numerous steps to encourage deer hunting. The sale of hunting licenses produces revenue for expanding and maintaining wildlife habitat.

Still, cultural forces are working against the sport.

The average deer hunter in Michigan is 44 years old. Teens make up only 11 percent of those who will be afield over the next two weeks.

That’s a warning sign. About 7 percent of Michigan residents hold deer licenses today, compared to 10 percent 20 years ago. The total number of hunters has declined 23 percent since 2000, when 758,291 hunters harvested 541,401 deer.

Absent a robust hunting corps, many communities have had to thin the herd through other means, including special kills and sterilization.

While there aren’t as many hunters as there were a few years ago, deer hunting remains a proud tradition in Michigan, and a good number of our fellow residents will be in the woods this morning to start the firearms season.

We wish them good hunting. Be safe.

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