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New U.P. deer restrictions: a bold step to bring our deer management program into this century



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September 01, 2008
As a subscriber, I am writing to express a different point of view about the new U.P. deer hunting regulations the NRC recently passed. I read Richard Smith's editorial in your August 2008 issue where he criticized the NRC for passing this regulation.

I am a long-time fan of Richard Smith. He's written ten great books about hunting in Michigan and the UP, he was a pioneer in assembling today's Commemorative Bucks of Michigan Record Books on big game, and he's been a tireless supporter of wildlife and hunter's rights.

Richard's column, however, gave a very negative view of the new regulation and cast doubt on the integrity of how this regulation was approved by our natural resource leaders. While I respect Richard, I have a very different view of this regulation and our NRC.

First, the new regulation applies only to the Upper Peninsula and it gives deer hunters a choice to purchase one of two buck hunting options. There is no question that some hunters disagree over how to manage our UP deer herd. As a born and raised Yooper, I've been a part of this debate for several decades. This new regulation is a good approach because it is a compromise between those who like the status quo (to kill any legal buck) and those who prefer to reduce the harvest of yearling bucks (to practice antler restrictions or QDM programs) so we manage the herd more like other states.

Under the new regulation, hunters who wish to shoot a buck of any legal size with 3" spikes or bigger can purchase a one-buck license. These hunters can make a choice to continue hunting as they have in the past and they can shoot any legal buck they see. For the right to kill any legal buck (including yearling spikes and forkhorns), these hunters may only kill one buck.

Hunters who wish to purchase two buck licenses make a choice to purchase a restricted combination license. They must tag a buck with at least three points on one side for their regular buck license and they must kill a buck with at least four points on one side for their restricted tag. For the restricted buck tag, this is the same statewide restriction we have in place today. Because these hunters have made a choice to forgo shooting yearling bucks, they are allowed to hunt for two bucks. For practical purposes, this means these hunters will make a choice to pass up spikehorns and 3 and 4 point bucks, protecting up to 75 percent of the UP's yearling bucks.

This new licensing option is commonly referred to as the "Hunter's Choice" program. It was developed and supported by the largest UP outdoor group, the UP Whitetails Association. All eight chapters of UP Whitetails supported this initiative as did the Quality Deer Management Association. Spokesperson and chief champion for the regulation is George Lindquist, a resident Yooper from Negaunee and a board member of UP Whitetails Association, Marquette Chapter.

The sheer beauty of this regulation is that it is truly a compromise between those who favor mandatory antler restriction programs to reduce the harvest of young bucks and those who prefer to shoot any buck. Under the new regulation, each side gets a little of what they want and every hunter gets to make a choice of which program he or she prefers. The regulation also is, in part, a one-buck program, an alternative that many Yoopers have requested and a program that the NRC also extensively studied one year ago. The regulation also has an incentive to encourage hunters to pass up young bucks so they have a chance to grow older.

Richard says the NRC decision should be challenged by outdoor groups and overturned. I respectfully disagree. In fact, I believe we should be celebrating this landmark decision by the seven members of our Natural Resources Commission. I believe these commissioners did their homework on this issue, they listened to the public, they listened to expert testimony on biological and scientific facts about the program, they considered their options, and they made a courageous decision to change the course of deer management in this state.

Rather than criticize them, I applaud them for taking this bold step to bring our deer management program into this century. For too long, Michigan has managed its huge deer population like we are still in the 1970s. To this day, we still have the most manipulated and most unnatural deer herd in the country. Of the major deer hunting states, we remain the only one who kills more bucks than antlerless deer. Compared to almost any state, our kill statistics are way out of line with how other states manage their herds. Last year, as an example, Wisconsin hunters shot twice as many antlerless deer (347,400 does and fawns) as bucks (171,200). Pennsylvania also shot almost twice as many antlerless deer as bucks (213,900 vs. 109,200). In Michigan, we shot 267,400 bucks and 209,200 antlerless deer in 2007. We can't have a herd like our hunters want if we continue to overharvest so many of our young bucks.

In approving the new regulation, our NRC listened to the 72% of Michigan's hunters who have told them they want Michigan to manage its deer herd much like the other states, giving us a more natural deer herd and one with more bucks in the herd and more older bucks. Managing the herd to achieve this outcome requires that we protect more yearling bucks. This is simple biology and simple math. If we want more bucks in the herd and we want more older bucks, we need to follow a simple conservation practice and stop killing so many young bucks. The NRC action gave UP hunters a tool to do just that and they gave us what we have repeatedly been asking for.

The NRC also reviewed the overwhelming support for mandatory antler restriction programs that UP landowners and hunters have shown in numerous surveys the DNR has conducted with the help of outdoor groups over the last seven years. Every one of these UP surveys showed that the public supports reasonable antler restriction programs. These surveys confirm that support throughout the UP for antler restrictions is exceptionally high.

Richard criticizes the NRC because it did not follow an Antler Restriction Guideline that requires an outdoor group to follow certain steps before implementing an antler restriction program. My view is that the NRC showed real leadership by implementing this program now and not tying up another outdoor group in a bureaucratic exercise that would delay for another two years, sound and scientific management of our deer herd. NRC commissioners voted to implement this program for the 2008 hunting season knowing full well that the overwhelming majority of hunters and landowners would support this program and knowing that the management plan was biologically sound. For a long time, outdoor groups have been asking the NRC and DNR to sponsor some major antler restriction programs themselves. I am grateful they now are.

Richard also criticizes the UP Whitetails Association for supporting this regulation. On the contrary, I commend UP Whitetails and Mr. George Lindquist in particular for their tenacity to get this regulation or something similar passed. This dedicated group of sportsmen and women has worked tirelessly for better deer management in the UP. I am extremely proud of the commitment they showed and I am grateful for their dedication. We should consider ourselves blessed that this group cares so much about the well-being of the whitetail deer.

Richard also says that no biology or science went into this decision. Again, I have another view. I was present at the public NRC meeting when a nationally known and widely respected deer biologist who has consulted with about a dozen different states on managing their deer herds, talked about deer management with the NRC. I heard Mr. Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association testify before the NRC about the scientific and biological benefits to our deer herd if we reduced the harvest of our yearling bucks and harvested more antlerless deer. I was there when all seven NRC commissioners quizzed Mr. Adams about their options for managing our deer herd. I was very impressed with the quality of the questions our commissioners asked and their group discussion about our future deer herd. It is a fact that this discussion focused on deer science and biology and, most importantly, on what is best for the future of our deer herd.

In my opinion, the NRC acted in accordance with Proposal G of our State Constitution and they acted in a manner that showed good public policy decision making by a board of directors with oversight over a state department. I am thankful to John Madigan who led this charge among the NRC commissioners and fellow Yooper JR Richardson who was also a strong supporter of the action. Long-time commissioners Keith Charters and Frank Wheatlake have also been consistent supporters of sound deer management principles and they clearly helped lead us in this new direction. I am also grateful to new commissioners Hurley Coleman Jr. and Darnell Earley who showed great interest in deer management principles and options. But, I am most impressed with commissioner Mary Brown who, in the middle of the deer management debate, challenged the DNR staff "to start thinking more out of the box" about our deer management options.

Several hours after these scientific discussions, I am thankful our NRC courageously voted 7-0 to support the new deer management program for the UP.

I do agree with Richard on one point. As hunters, we need to stick together more than we do. I now hope that UP hunters will get behind this new program and support better management of our deer herd. It's my hope that this new innovative program will further the educational process about deer management principles. I hope the program gets more hunters talking about what deer they want to shoot and why. And I hope we encourage more hunters to understand what our deer management options are. In the end, what really matters is that educated and passionate deer hunters, who care deeply about our deer herd, will help us ensure that our proud deer hunting heritage is still around long after guys like Richard and me are gone.

Leon E. Hank, president of the State Chapter of Michigan Quality Deer Management Association.

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