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Saturday marks the beginning of firearm deer season in Michigan, but significant snowfall up north, colder-than-normal temperatures and higher costs for hunters threaten to reduce the number of people heading into the fields and forests.

A new fee structure that Michigan's Department of Natural Resources started this year in some cases can double the cost for hunters. The state justified the changes by saying it has cut the number of licenses from 200 to more than 40, made the process more fair and helped create a way to improve the hunting and fishing habitat.

A new base license fee for $11 is required for adult residents, and other licenses have increased from $5 to $10. The fees are even higher for out-of-state enthusiasts.

In a state where the fees remained relatively stable for years, the increases have shocked and disappointed many hunting regulars.

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"We've had people walk away from the counter when they realize what the cost is this year," said Matt Poet, marketing director at the more than 40-year-old Jay's Sporting Goods in Clare. He added that this year license sales are "extremely down."

The state sold 1,015,073 deer licenses between March 1 and Sunday — the lowest number in the past six years during the same period, according to the DNR. Only once in that eight-month period — in 2011, when the state sold 1,033,419 — has the number dipped below the 1,050,000 mark.

The higher costs for out-of-state hunters are even more daunting. The new base license for non-residents is $151 plus another $20 for a deer license. Last year, they paid $138 for a non-resident deer license.

Earlier this week, Toledo resident Pat Ison came into the Dundee Cabela's to return equipment he had planned to use hunting in Michigan.

"I was going to go up for a one-day hunt with my dad, but I couldn't justify the $180 to do it," he said. "I basically told the DNR they can forget it, I'll hunt in Ohio."

What makes the lower sales numbers more striking is that this year's firearm season begins on the weekend — making it easier for casual hunters to start right away — instead of a weekday opening.

"We're always excited when there's a Saturday opening because it gives some people who can't get away during the week an opportunity to participate early on, and that usually leads to higher participation," said Debbie Munson Badini, a DNR spokeswoman.

Smaller harvest forecast

Some hunters have made other non-monetary calculations about this deer season. Many Lower Peninsula counties still have reduced numbers of deer as a result of die-offs from a 2012 outbreak of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease. Nearly 15,000 deer across 30 counties in the peninsula's southern half died that year.

DNR officials, in a report issued last month, forecast this year's harvest to be similar to last year, which was lower than previous years — especially in the U.P. and southern Lower Peninsula — due in part to disease and a brutal 2012 U.P. winter. Fewer than half of hunters went home with a deer in 2013, the DNR reported. Hunters harvested about 385,000 deer, an 8 percent decline from 2012.

Weather also is expected to play a role in how many hunters head out this week. The Upper Peninsula has received a foot to 3 feet of snow since Monday — from 11 inches in Marquette on Wednesday to 36 inches in Negaunee.

The snow started falling Monday around the Powers home of Dan Kirschner and kept going through the next day.

"We've never had this kind of snowfall in the southern Upper Peninsula at this time of year," said Kirschner, owner of Wild Spirit Guide Service. "By the time it's done, we're going to see 14-15 inches of snow on the ground."

Large snowfalls create issues for hunters as well as the deer.

In remote areas, significant snowfall can make prime hunting areas inaccessible for trucks and all-terrain vehicles. But snow gives hunters a better opportunity to track their prey.

Temperatures in Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas will likely be 20 degrees colder than normal on Saturday and Sunday, according to National Weather Service Forecaster Rachel Kulik.

Temperatures in the 30s or lower can be a hardship on hunters who spend hours waiting in blinds. But colder temperatures often spur deer to move more frequently, increasing the chances of them being spotted.

A warm fall has left a lot of corn standing, presenting another hurdle for hunters. The ready food source and the natural cover it provides for the deer lead some hunters to expect few opportunities to spot and shoot deer this season.

Some remain undeterred

But the situation isn't stopping hunting diehards.

Joe Hodge, a 31-year-old Allen Park resident, will leave early Thursday morning and begin a journey of more than nine hours north to reach Skanee in the U.P., where he has hunted for most of his life.

It will mean traversing snow-covered roads and battling his way to hunting grounds where he isn't expecting numerous opportunities to shoot at bucks. He said he's among those who don't mind the additional or higher hunting fees.

"As long as it's going to the right place, I don't mind at all," he said Wednesday, as he prepared to site-in his rifle at Brighton's Island Lake Shooting Range. Money generated by the fee increases will help finance the DNR Wildlife Division's strategic plan to expand hunting opportunities in Michigan.

Fees or no fees, cold or no cold, South Lyon's Tim Hurley will be heading to Lincoln Thursday night with his 17-year-old son to embrace the hunting season. At 50, Hurley is a late-comer to the deer-hunting game, having started last year.

But it already has its hold on him.

"I didn't have this hunting experience with my own father, I just went after small game with my brother and friends," Hurley said. "It's been a great experience — the father/son aspect and just being out in the woods in the fall.

"There's nothing better."

jlynch@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2034

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