Checking contacts throughout the Northern Lower Peninsula brought the same results. News media reported a 30 percent decline in hunters within the Pigeon River Country state forest. Other media articles reported the lack of hunters throughout the north. Each passing year brings less and less hunting camps set up on public land, both state and national. Despite the many excuses a simple fact remains. If there is ample game the hunters will follow.
As recently as 1992 Michigan had 1,171,721 licensed hunters. By 2008 hunter numbers has fallen to 790,789. During that time we have lost 390,932 hunters. One third of our fellow hunters have disappeared and according to the DNR they are declining at one percent a year, but statistics reveal it is at least twice that many.
Why is there such a dramatic decline? Have all of the old timers passed away and there are no one to replace them? Are there other factors that come into play? There are common complaints by those who must hunt on public forests. The first is the lack of game. The second is trying to interest a youth in hunting. After setting on stand for several days, staring at the same trees and perhaps only seeing a deer or two the kid is bored and loses their interest in hunting.
Several years ago the deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave a speech at the SHOT show at Las Vegas, addressing the shooting industries future leaders. During his speech he stated that he was really worried that hunting is becoming an elitist sport, thereby excluding the average hunter. He added “paying for access on private land has become more and more expensive over the years and many Americans have been forced to abandon hunting because they can no longer afford it”. He indicated that not having a place to hunt or not finding ample game on public land are some of the main reasons hunters drop out.
During planning of the 2006 one million acre Huron-Manistee National Forests the U.S Forest Service indicated that 35 percent of Michigan’s hunters hunt on national forest lands. Experts in wildlife management have indicated that under the 2006 plan hunting will decline significantly. The 1986 plan lists 37,105 acres of Deer Emphasis Areas (winter yarding areas). 23,547 acres will disappear. 2000 acres of managed wildlife openings will be gone. 35 percent of the aspen has disappeared due to failure to maintain young stands. An additional loss of 40,000 acres will occur. 20,300 acres of oak will be clearcut and lost, along with the elimination of 5,321 acres of low site oak. Ruffed Grouse is listed as an indicator species. Their population goal is maintaining two grouse for each square mile. Despite the importance of this national forest to hunter, game management is non existent on this one million acres.
The Michigan Wild Turkey Hunters Association (MWTHA) has always realized the importance of our state forests as it relates to hunting. For the past two decades we have attended various forest compartment reviews. In partnership with the Michigan Conservation Foundation we have reviewed most of the key forest compartments. We have found that Not One Compartment Met The Minimum Habitat Requirement For Most Game Species. At the same time we found that the Forest Management Division is quite efficient at growing a tree and cutting a tree.
Between 1971 and 1979 the DNR Wildlife Division began the long process of planning a Deer Range Improvement Program. It is an excellent document. Like so many other DNR plans unfortunately it was never implemented. If it had been, today there would not only be ample numbers of deer but many other wildlife species as well.
Some of the prescriptions that were never followed listed the precise percentage of tree species to be maintained on specific types of areas and the percentage of wildlife openings to be maintained.
A half a century ago if a hunter knocked on ten farmhouse doors in southern Michigan to seek permission to hunt pheasants and rabbits he would probably obtain permission from at least eight of them. Today the odds are he would get permission from none of them, especially to hunt deer. Many average hunters can neither afford an expensive lease, even if he could find one, nor can afford the high price of hunting land. Those millions of acres of public land in Michigan are very important for the retention of our fellow hunters. How many hunters have quit or hunt elsewhere because game populations are so suppressed on the public forests? There are other reasons why we are losing hunters but the lack of access and game are major contributors. We can recruit but retention is impossible.
A knee-jerk reaction to the dramatic loss of hunters in Michigan is occurring. The legal hunting age has been reduced. A bill pending in the legislature would eliminate age requirements. Implementing archery or shooting sports in schools may feel good but it is not going to solve our hunter problem. Setting a kid in a heated shanty over a bait pile or food plot and have him whack a deer will create a shooter but not necessarily a hunter who will come to understand our natural resources and will fight for them in the future. There is a learning period in creating a dedicated hunter. As my father did and as I did with my son there is a learning process. At an early age take a child with you on your hunting or fishing trips where they can learn not only an appreciation and knowledge of our natural resources but the game that they seek. In the case of hunting they earn the right to a hunting license and carrying a gun.
Show me a kid that can’t sleep the night before the opening day of a hunting season and I will show you a life long hunter. Anything less does not bode well for the future of hunting and wildlife management.