2021 Deer Hunting Prospects

2021 Michigan Deer Season Preview

Authors:‚Äč Chad Stewart, Deer and Elk Program Specialist, Lansing Customer Service Center

Introduction

This year commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Through Public Act 17 of 1921, the Michigan legislature created the State Department of Conservation, the ancestor to today's Department of Natural Resources. One constant, through those 100 years, has been deer management. In fact, deer management in Michigan preceded the creation of today's DNR. The first deer regulation was developed in 1859, which eliminated year-round hunting and set a seven-month season for taking deer. By 1895, deer hunters were required to have a license and the season dates were shortened to November 1-25 with a bag limit of 5 deer. These laws were developed to dramatically control market hunting at the time.

After the Department of Conservation was formed, one of the goals was to grow the deer herd after years of being suppressed by market hunting. In 1921, a "buck only" law was passed that prohibited the take of antlerless deer. In 1925, the season dates were changed to November 15-30 - dates that modern day Michigan firearm deer hunters will surely recognize. By 1930, the "buck only" law was so successful, that an abundance of deer was being recognized in some northern areas. While deer hunting was closed in southern Michigan from 1930-1941, the population grew in the northern forests, which were seeing the impacts of over a decade without antlerless harvest and unchecked growth. By 1943, for the first time in 70 years, deer could be found in every county in Michigan. 

The deer herd continued to grow over time and seemed to peak in the 1990's. In 1998, a record harvest of nearly 600,000 deer occurred. The deer herd doesn't seem to be as big as it was then, but if history has taught us anything, it's that the deer herd can grow rapidly over time. Many of the changes in deer regulations over the past several years have been implemented to attempt to curb growth that is being seen throughout much of the Lower Peninsula, where most of Michigan's deer and deer hunters reside. 

2021 Deer Regulations and Management Rationale

The 2021 regulation changes, which include allowing harvest of antlerless deer on the deer and deer combination license during the firearms and muzzleloader seasons, and the new universal antlerless license that allows hunters to use their antlerless license in any open unit, has been met with a wide range of response. Some are excited about the flexibility to use licenses in a variety of areas and for a variety of deer. Others are pleased with the savings, no longer having to apply for an antlerless license or perhaps even purchase an antlerless license, with the ability to now harvest an antlerless deer on a combination tag during the firearms season. To those hunters who are excited about these changes, this is exactly why those changes were made, and we hope you enjoy the newfound freedom and flexibility of using your licenses and choosing how and where you harvest your deer throughout the season.

Other hunters are concerned that the lack of quotas, increased flexibility, and increased opportunity will lead to a widespread devastation and overharvest of the deer herd. It's understandable why this would cause concern. Michigan has had a long, historic timeframe where the management paradigm was based on quotas, only to be changed in the space of a year to a new paradigm. To those hunters who have this concern, I can only attempt to show you the data we used to make our decisions.

While the department is confident these regulation changes won't devastate any county's deer herd, we do recognize that there may be added pressure in some locations in the county, making hunting more difficult. Truth be told, we didn't have the ability to micromanage hunter distribution within a county previously under our quota system. For example, there was nothing stopping the 843 public land antlerless license holders in Benzie County in 2020 from descending on the same parcel of public land in the same week. But we know that hunters by and large regulate themselves in terms of both harvest and spatial use, and while some areas may see slight levels of overharvest with these new changes, we feel that these changes will lead to improvements in management at the county-wide level.

So what data was used to evaluate some of these changes, specifically with the new universal antlerless license that is available for the first time this year? For one, we know that not many deer hunters in Michigan even purchase an antlerless license. In 2020, 65% of hunters did not purchase an antlerless license. Another 24% only purchased one. In fact, only 2% of hunters purchase more than 4 antlerless licenses in 2020. Some this is probably a function of the changes last year to allow antlerless deer to be taken during the firearms and muzzleloader season on the deer and combination license. In 2019, 59% of hunters did not purchase an antlerless license, while 30% purchased one, and still only 2% purchased four or more licenses. While there was some change in buying practices in 2020 vs. 2019, it wasn't very much.

With the changes made last year, the antlerless deer harvest in the lower peninsula increased by nearly 26% in 2020 compared to 2019. While that sounds like a dramatic increase, it's worth putting perspective behind that increase. While the 184,398 antlerless deer harvested in the Lower Peninsula dramatically exceeded what was harvested in recent years, one only has to go back to 2011 to find a higher antlerless harvest. Prior to that, Michigan hunters routinely harvested around or over 200,000 antlerless deer in the Lower Peninsula alone.

Some might say that the reduced antlerless harvest today is a function of fewer deer than existed in the 2000's, and while there might be some truth to that, it's worth noting that lower peninsula hunters typically harvested near even numbers of bucks and does in the 2000's. While buck harvest has slowed slightly in recent years, probably largely explained due to the loss of nearly 200,000 hunters in Michigan since the 2000s, antlerless harvest has declined more rapidly. The regulation changes today are meant to attempt to restore antlerless harvest levels back in-line with antlered harvest to achieve a more balanced sex ratio.

In DMU 487, Michigan's bovine Tuberculosis area, a discounted license will again be sold for those six counties (Alcona, Montmorency, Oscoda, Presque Isle, and Iosco County). Hunters wishing only to hunt in this area can purchase the discounted license good for all six counties or purchase a universal antlerless license that is good in that location as well as other counties in the state open to antlerless harvest.

While on the topic of our TB management area, let's compare the impact of deer regulations that have been liberalized for years due to the presence of bovine TB in that area. Those areas, despite nearly unlimited quotas for decades, average less than four antlerless deer harvested per square mile over recent history. With an expected decline of 100,000 Michigan deer hunters in the next 10 years or so, combined with the deer's reproductive potential, finding ways to manage deer with a reduced hunting population is an important approach that has led to the changes you see today.

A lot of this talk has focused on the Lower Peninsula, but the Upper Peninsula will experience changes this year as well. The universal antlerless license will be an option for hunters hunting in the southern part of the UP where deer are essentially considered non-migratory. Though these areas can certainly still experience difficult winters, they also have lower hunter numbers than many locations in the Lower Peninsula. Certainly, locations like Menominee County and parts of Dickinson County continue to have abundant deer numbers, and many of the statements above can apply to these areas. Other locations open to the antlerless license, such as DMU's 022, 121, 122, 155, and 255, have smaller deer densities than DMU 055, but also fewer deer hunters as well. About 19,000 hunters hunt those five units combined, across over 2,000 square miles of land. That means that on average, those units only experience about nine hunters per square mile throughout the hunting season. Compare that to downstate, where places like Mecosta County (DMU 054) still experience >20 hunters per square mile, the level of pressure is completely different.

Throughout the mid-snowfall zone of the UP, antlerless opportunities will exist for all archery hunters and some lucky firearm hunters. Hunters had the opportunity to apply for a Midwest and Mideast Access Permit, that if successfully drawn, they could use their universal antlerless license for in each specified region. This is a new concept meant to maintain the flexibility of the universal antlerless license, while still limiting participation in sensitive areas.

Again, it's certain that some hunters will view any antlerless harvest in these areas as potentially damaging given their current level of concern for deer populations in the area. With quotas set at 1,000 in each unit, and average success rates for UP hunters being ~36%, we would anticipate no more than 350-360 antlerless deer being taken in each unit. With nearly 3,000 square miles in the west and >3,700 square miles in the east, this roughly translates to one antlerless deer for every 10 square miles. So, while the concept of antlerless harvest might be new and perhaps worrisome in some of these locations, by no means will it be damaging to the overall population.

One final note is that Michigan is testing an online harvest reporting system this year, and we are encouraging successful hunters to record the information about the harvest of their deer and provide feedback. The online reporting will expedite the information available and allow staff to give near real-time reports in how the season is progressing. With this being the first year of testing the system, it's important to understand how the functionality is received by hunters across the state. Feel free to contact your local biologist at a check station or visit our website at Michigan.gov/Deer to report your harvest and help improve deer management in the future.

With all that stated, our deer population is thriving throughout much of the state, and the below regional preview will hopefully get everyone excited for the upcoming season. Information was provided by DNR Wildlife staff from across the state who have a great understanding of the trends seen in their coverage area. Their expertise and input have been invaluable in putting together the observations summarized below.

Regional Deer Forecast

Upper Peninsula

Last year was challenging for U.P. deer hunters, with overall harvest down nearly 6% from 2019, and buck harvest down nearly 11%. Though harvest numbers are not to the lows experienced in 2014-2016 after the severe winters in 2013-2015 that impacted harvest, they are down from harvest numbers in 2017 and 2018. 

The 2020 U.P. winter was far milder than normal, which was a welcome respite for the deer population. The fast spring green-up meant that many adult deer were able to recover quickly from the tolls of winter. With abundant mast (nuts, seeds and fruits) production in the fall of 2020, deer headed into winter in overall good shape. Population trends seem to be on the upswing this year for the U.P.  

Mast production this year seems very spotty. Look for areas with oaks producing acorns, as they are sure to attract deer. Buck numbers seem to be improving, but there are still areas where persistence is going to be necessary to be successful. Overall fawn production seems to be good. With the new changes allowing antlerless deer to be taken in the lower two-thirds of the peninsula, hunters have an increased opportunity to fill their freezer for what is hopefully another mild winter ahead.

The department is still focusing on CWD surveillance in southern Dickinson County after the first case of CWD was detected in the Upper Peninsula in 2018. For hunters interested in getting their deer tested, check out the "For Hunters" tab at Michigan.gov/CWD to view the map of the priority area in the Upper Peninsula.

Northern Lower Peninsula

In the 2020 hunting season, the NLP saw an estimated harvest of 135,906 deer, which was up 7% from 2019. While buck harvest declined about 5%, from 68,168 in 2019 to 64,725 last year, antlerless harvest increased by 21%, with over 12,000 additional antlerless deer taken in 2020 than in 2019. 

The winter of 2020 didn't seem to have adverse effects on the deer herd in the NLP due to fewer periods of extreme cold and an overall shorter winter. Another important factor that ensured winter survival was that forest management practices (new growth of young trees and leaving treetops from harvested trees) provided plenty of winter browse for deer throughout the winter. 

The mast crop in the NLP this year looks good except in places that were impacted by gypsy moth infestations. Those areas are not likely to see much in terms of acorn production. Elsewhere, acorns and soft mast, including apples in old homestead sites, blackberries and hawthorn are all producing nicely. 

Deer numbers look very good in many locations, though it's important to point out that deer are not evenly distributed across the landscape, and certain areas may hold fewer deer than others. Overall, staff are seeing good fawn production this year with many twins trailing does. 

The spring and summer rains seemed to provide optimal forage for deer, and the bucks have been turning that into nice antler growth. There are some reports of people seeing better bucks relative to recent years - something hunters can start getting excited about. Some locations have noted that there is still a long way to go towards balancing the buck to doe ratio, so hunters are encouraged to take advantage of new regulations that allow antlerless deer to be taken on the deer and/or deer combination license during firearms and muzzleloader seasons. 

Bovine TB surveillance is still a priority in the NLP, with testing occurring in the primary counties of Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, and Oscoda, but also in all surrounding counties as well (Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Otsego, Crawford, Roscommon, Ogemaw, and Iosco).  TB is a significant threat to the livestock industry, and hunters wanting to do their part to assist with surveillance can have their deer tested at any deer check station this year.

Southern Lower Peninsula

2020 was quite a year in the SLP with antlerless harvest increasing 29% from 2019. Buck harvest also increased by over 12%, and when you factor in deer harvested by Deer Management Assistance Permits, nearly 250,000 deer were taken in the SLP alone. Much of this antlerless pressure has been needed as numbers throughout most units have been on a steady rise for years. 

With winter rarely being a factor for population level impacts in the SLP, the agency relies on hunters for the bulk of the management for deer in this region, and the recent regulation changes seem to be a step in the desired direction for deer management.

The soft mast crops appear weak this year, likely due to the drought conditions experienced through June and the heavy rains throughout July. Though there doesn't appear to be a bumper crop of acorns in the SLP this year, some oaks are producing, and if you are in an area with acorns, it's sure to be a magnet for deer in early fall. 

With the agricultural fields performing well, deer certainly haven't been hungry this summer. The corn progression is on par with 2020 and ahead of the five-year average, so with any luck, many of the fields will be picked by the firearm opener which should lead to continued success this season. 

Deer numbers seem consistent with previous years, and as always, there have been some nice bucks observed. The fawns observed are well-developed and well on their way to entering winter strong and healthy. 

It's important to note that throughout much of the SLP, surveillance for chronic wasting disease is occurring in the southernmost counties. Hunters are encouraged to visit check stations and submit their deer for testing. A complete list of check stations is available at Michigan.gov/DeerCheck.

Preparing for the 2021 Season

The 2021 deer season is fast approaching. Hopefully, you have been out planning, preparing, and refining your strategy all year long for the upcoming season. If you have, give yourself a pat on the back because you have earned it. If you are like the rest of us, we have a few things to think about to get ready for the season.

Talk to a biologist

Your local biologist is a wealth of information. Biologists not only have a broad knowledge of deer behavior and ecology from the scientific point of view, but they are also in tune with the local area and factors that may influence deer.

Contact your local soil conservation district

Do you have a food plot or planting that did not fare as well as you had hoped this year that could use a boost for next year? Even though we are on the eve of the 2021 deer season it is never too early to set things in motion for a great growing season in 2022. One of the best places to figure out where to start, or what the next step should be, is your local soil conservation district.

Scouting

Scouting probably has the biggest impact on success. If you are unsure what you are looking for, or how to go about it, scouting can seem like a daunting task. That said, no matter how large or small the property you are hunting, keen observation and understanding of how and why deer move on that landscape is important. Even making an adjustment of a couple feet here or there can make all the difference in success.

Scouting: Digital maps

There are several tools out there to digitally gain mapping information. Some of the most well-known navigation tools like Google Maps can give you a bird's eye view of places you plan to hunt. There are also tools available that show you where private/public land boundaries are. If you are hunting public land in Michigan a great, free tool is Mi-Hunt. Mi-Hunt is a digital tool that has a ton of information stored in "layers." Mi-Hunt provides everything from public/private land boundaries, satellite imagery and cover types (upland, lowland, oaks etc.) to trails, topography and more.

Scouting: Terrain

Whether reading a map or observing on the ground, knowing the terrain can help uncover where a deer is likely to move. Land features that help provide protection, assist in giving their nose an advantage or that lead to an absence of human pressure can all influence a deer to move one way or the next. Learning to read those features can take time but is worth the effort. Some popular terrain features to keep an eye out for are ridges and saddles. A ridge is simply an elevated portion of terrain that extends out like a finger. Deer will often parallel these land features at various elevation points depending on the scenario. A saddle is simply an area between ridges that creates a depression or low point, often between valleys. Like with most factors revolving around deer, there are also many other terrain features that a deer may utilize. The key is to start familiarizing yourself with the terrain to help make sense of the deer movement in the area you are hunting.

onX, a popular digital map tool, has topographic map terrain feature illustration resource.

Scouting: Ground Truthing

No matter how much time you spend on digital map scouting, it always pays to get on the ground and see what the terrain really looks like. If you have the time to get out ahead of the season, you can both be sure your map interpretations are correct and look to find evidence that areas of interest have visible signs of present or past deer movement.

Scouting: Bedding and feeding

Understanding deer bedding and feeding will uncover deer travel patterns. As straight forward as that statement is, figuring out the specifics can take a bit of work. Deer are adaptable and will bed in a variety of environments if they feel it is secure. Bedding locations can be found in the middle of cattail swamps or on the edge of an idle field fence line. The important part is getting out and identifying those locations. As adaptable creatures, deer will also eat a variety of food sources. Depending on factors like the time of year, food abundance, proximity to security and the like, deer may choose one food source over the other. Deer could be feeding on anything from recently forested aspen trees to grain in large agriculture fields and many items in between. The important part is figuring out what types of food are in your area and how that relates back to bedding areas. Another thing to key in on is the areas of habitat "edge" between these bedding and feeding areas. Habitat edges are areas of habitat that transition from one type to the next. These areas are important to deer and can concentrate a lot of activity.

Scouting: Finding the sign

Deer Trails

Deer trails are telltale signs that give a look into habitual activity. A deer trail is a narrow trail of varying degrees of wear depending on how well traveled it is. If you see what appears to be a narrow trail in Michigan, and it isn't a walking trail, it is likely a deer trail. One thing to keep in mind is that time of year can dictate some of that trail use activity. You may find a very freshly worn trail in summer that may not be all that active when a food source changes, or some other seasonal factor is introduced. Trying to understand how a particular trail may connect some of the food, cover or terrain previously discussed can help narrow down some likely spots of interest. Looking for trail intersections, where multiple trails come together or cross, can also be a good way to key in on spot to consider.  If you want to get a better idea what may be coming down those trails and when they are coming, you can purchase a trail camera and set it up along the trail.

Rubs and scrapes

Depending on the time of year bucks will also leave telltale signs by making rubs and scrapes. A "rub" is simply a tree that has bark rubbed off by antlers of a deer. These start to show up in large part later in October and into November timed with rut activity. Although it can be debated how much stock to put into rubs, they do tell a story of guaranteed past activity. Also be on the lookout for rubs that form a line. A rub line is a series of rubbed trees that form a line that follows a line of travel. Scrapes, on the other hand, are cleared areas of bare dirt that deer also make in that late October early November timeframe. These are viewed as more consistent opportunities for repeat visits from deer, particularly bucks. Some scrapes may be just a one-time occurrence, or they can be communal areas that are frequented often by many deer. Even if you are not in that magic window of fresh activity, you may be able to detect last year's activity which could be similar to the current year.

Picking a spot

Once you have put together more and more pieces of the puzzle, it will be time to find a spot to sit. You may be looking for a place to set up a tree stand for the season or simply just identifying a place to setup the day of your hunt with a ground blind. Ideally you will try and find a spot close enough for a comfortable shot in the area a deer will likely travel, while still remaining concealed. Keep in mind the predominate wind (in Michigan, absent any unique terrain influencing wind direction, it is generally out of the west) to make sure that your location will be downwind of that area you expect to have a deer travel. Another successful strategy is to make note of the location of the stand in proximity to where you expect to see deer travel and note the wind direction to be sure you hunt that stand on days the wind will be blowing away from that area.

Scent control and pressure

Scouting and spending time figuring out why, how and where deer travel is infinitely important. The more time you invest the better. However, your presence also has an impact. Each area is a little different on the dynamics of how much human activity will be tolerated, but as a rule each time you are in the deer's environment you are increasing their awareness and wariness. This can be true of scouting and of hunting a single location often. The safe bet is usually to play it safe and don't visit areas you are actively hunting or plan to hunt any more than necessary. It is always a balancing act. To avoid deer figuring out your pattern instead of the other way around, a method that is increasing in popularity is the "hang and hunt." The hang and hunt method involves identifying the area or trees you would like to come back to and setting up the stand when you hunt. This premise is built around selecting many areas to hunt and not being selective to one area. If hunting a small tract of land this method likely does not make sense. If you are venturing out onto larger properties or some of the over 8 million acres of publicly accessible hunting ground in Michigan this could be something to consider.

Review the current regulations

Be sure to check up on the latest hunting regulations in your area, which may influence your strategy.

Get afield

The most important thing you can do this fall is get out in Michigan's great outdoors and enjoy the deer season. There is one guarantee, that there is always something to be learned. There is no substitute for time spent afield. 

Conclusion

I'd like to wish everyone a safe and successful hunting season. The 2021 deer season is shaping up to be another great one here in Michigan. Whatever your goal is for deer hunting, whether it's a trophy rack, a freezer full of venison, reconnecting with friends and family, or simply being one with nature, I hope you find your goals fulfilled at season's end.

Chad