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DNR: Mild winter brings robust deer numbers for hunting

George Hunter
The Detroit News

A mild winter has resulted in a robust deer population throughout the state for the fall hunting season, the state's Department of Natural Resources said Thursday.

The DNR released its annual deer hunting preview for the 2020 hunting season, which opens Saturday and Sunday  with the Liberty Hunt for youth and hunters with disabilities.

White-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, browse in a cut-over wheat field in Central Michigan in this July 20, 2017, file photo.

"Overall, conditions are looking excellent for the upcoming seasons, and hunters can expect conditions that meet or exceed 2019," a DNR press release said.

Regular firearm hunting opens Nov. 15 and runs through Nov. 30.

The DNR notes that there have been a number of recent regulation changes.

“The last 20 years have resulted in dramatic and sustained declines in hunter numbers,” Chad Stewart, DNR's deer and elk program leader, said in a statement. “When combined with an abundant and resilient deer herd that continues to grow, and the added challenge of managing deer diseases, that shifting dynamic required some significant changes.”

The DNR last year imposed antler point restrictions on hunting in Mecosta, Montcalm and Ionia counties in an effort to fight chronic wasting disease, which threatens the state's white-tail deer population by attacking the animals' brains, causing erratic behavior and premature death.

A study commissioned by the state suggested the new restrictions could make the disease worse because they force hunters to target healthy yearlings and does instead of older deer, which are more susceptible to the disease.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says there should be plenty of deer for hunters this fall.

This year's DNR forecast says:

The Upper Peninsula deer herd apparently fared well last winter. "This, coupled with a good spring and excellent summer growing season, has most areas reporting more deer sightings than last year. Field staff is anticipating a slightly better hunting season," the DNR said.

"While soft mast (berries, apples, etc.) appears spotty across the region (likely due to late frost conditions in spring), the hard mast (nuts, acorns, etc.), particularly acorns, appears to be excellent in those areas with oak trees," the DNR release said. "Hunters should be on the lookout for oak trees producing acorns and invest time determining if deer have trails near these areas."

During archery season, hunters can shot antlerless deer with either a deer or deer combo license, except in deer management units 027, 031, 036, 042, 066, 127 and 131, the release said.

In the northern Lower Peninsula, the winter had no impact on deer, the DNR said. 

"Antler development and body size look exceptionally good this year, likely due to mild winter conditions and good natural food sources available in the spring and summer," the release said.

"Soft mast appears spotty, but acorn production seems quite good throughout the region in areas with oak trees. Hunters can anticipate an even better hunting season this year, weather permitting," the DNR said.

Under the new regulations, the early and late antlerless firearm seasons are open on private lands only in all mainland Lower Peninsula deer management units, the DNR said.

"Additionally, hunters in all deer management units may take an antlerless deer with a single deer license or deer combo license during the early and late antlerless seasons and the archery, firearm and muzzleloading seasons," according to the release.

In the southern Lower Peninsula, "the winter in southern Michigan was very mild and likely had no impact on the deer herd," the DNR said.

"Deer numbers appear to be quite high, and large bachelor groups have already been seen across much of the region. Field staff anticipate more hunter success this season," according to the release.

"In the southern Lower Peninsula, hunters may take an antlerless deer with a deer or deer combo license during the early and late antlerless seasons and the archery, firearm and muzzleloading seasons. Also, the muzzle loading season will be open to all legal firearms in Zone 3 in Bay, Isabella, Mecosta, Midland, Newaygo, Oceana and all remaining counties in southern Michigan.

"Finally, muzzle loaders can be used on public lands in Zone 3 in Bay, Isabella, Mecosta, Midland, Newaygo, Oceana and all remaining counties in southern Michigan during the late antlerless firearm season to take any deer with a valid tag," the DNR said.

"Late antlerless season is still a 'private land only hunt' everywhere but Zone 3, and public lands may be used only by those hunting with a muzzle loader," the DNR said.

Beside the Liberty Hunt and regular firearm season, these categories of deer hunting are permitted on these dates:

►Early antlerless firearm: Sept. 19-20

--Hunters with disabilities: Oct. 15-18

--Archery: Oct. 1-Nov. 14 and Dec. 1-Jan. 1

--Extended archery — Urban Deer Management Zone of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties: Open through Jan. 31

--Muzzleloading: Zone 1, 2 and 3: Dec. 4-13

--Late antlerless firearm: Dec. 14-Jan. 1