The first years I hunted Michigan’s Northeastern Upper Peninsula for whitetail were purely magical. I can remember driving the snow-covered two-tracks in the dead of night on the way to my friend’s cabin. The spectacle was that of a wintery fairyland with white snowshoe hare running ahead of the truck for miles and miles, seemingly mesmerized by the illumination of the headlamps and eventually veering off and being replaced by brothers and sisters in a pristine whiteness that glistened as a billion diamonds in the focused beams of light. There is a certain majesty achieved by the tall pines heavily laden with fresh snow that almost took my breath away in awe as the truck’s lighting penetrated the blackness of a U.P. moonless night.
I never drove fast once I was off of the pavement. I was always aware of the plethora of white-tailed deer tracks in the snow as well as the occasional moose sign and the risk of one darting out of the cover in front of my truck. The consequences of that sort of encounter could be expensive for both the animal and myself! Even arriving in daylight I always drove slow for the same reasons, following the winding trails. But arriving in the darkness was always the best. Usually I was greeted by the soft glow of lamplight filtering through the cabin’s windows and the unmistakable scent of wood-smoke wafting from the cabin’s chimney. This was followed by a shaft of light illuminating the porch and snow beyond as the cabin door swung open and extended hands, smiling faces, hearty hellos and so much exuberance that one could be warmed by it as much as the woodstove within.
Such was the case for countless numbers of hunters at cabins and camps that had opened their doors for many decades in the Northeastern U.P. Most of them are closed now. Many are falling into disrepair. There is little reason to go north to hunt whitetails these days. Things changed. While it is true that the only constant in this world is change it is also certain that not all of it is good.
I can remember the introduction of the coyote and the pine martin in the Northeastern U.P. At first, there seemed little change in deer populations but, gradually, I noticed that I no longer had the company of the snowshoe hare on my drive in to the cabin and the large numbers of deer tracks were dwindling. Still, there was something to be said about hearing the lone coyote calling in the moonlight and the yips and yaps of groups of them hunting at night. Even seeing them from the deer-stand was a treat, knowing that even the predator was not aware of my presence.
The pine martin seemed to thrive as well but I noticed that, in the spring, the little chipmunks that used to provide hours of entertainment while I sat on the porch of the cabin, were nearly gone and in the fall, grouse populations seemed smaller as well, even considering their cycles. Still, watching the pine martin hunt while on stand hunting whitetails was interesting. Sometimes one would steal an apple left on the ground or even climb up a ladder stand to discover just what manner of creature was up there, looking down at them.
Whitetails were still fairly plentiful, though many of the ancient migration trails they used to travel into the yards for wintering were being used less and less. These trails were once so heavily used that they can still be seen as deer changed the shape of the land as thousands upon thousands of hooves disrupted it over the years. In early winter, after the first heavy snows, these trails would turn into a mucky mess till the migration was over and were clearly visible highways in the great woods if one knew where they were to be found.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the deer migrate to traditional wintering locations called “yards.” The yards generally offer the deer more shelter and food than can be gleaned in the open forest. However, several unusually long or hard winters can so deplete these yards of natural food that they cannot recover in one season, leaving less food than the year before in each, successive, hard, year. The yards are akin to virtual pens that the deer stay in even though they are starving while in them.
I also recall the introduction of the grey wolf into the U.P. Their presence was pretty controversial at the time and remains so even today. The first thing that I noticed after the introduction of the wolves was a dramatic drop in what had appeared to be a thriving coyote population. Honestly, that did not bother me, or my fellow hunters, very much. But then the hard winters came and large numbers of deer began to starve in the yards and to my knowledge, no feeding was ever done by the DNR in any attempt to keep them from starving. The odd sportsman’s club was still trying to help out with the winter survival rate by feeding on their private property but the DNR became concerned about chronic wasting disease as well as bovine tuberculosis. It seems the DNR feared the spread of these diseases through what was described to me as nose-to-nose contact and that would inevitably occur at feeding stations.
Seeing the whitetail populations continue to drop, I made inquires as to the possibility of providing medicated and enriched feed in the yards to help the animals survive the winter. I interviewed several Veterinarians that were used to working with cattle and they each thought that such a program would not only help to contain the spread of disease but stave off the starvation of vast numbers of deer in the browse-depleted yards. I broached the idea of supplemental feeding with representatives of the DNR at a meeting of the Michigan Outdoor Writer’s Association some years ago. I was met with blank stares, followed by comments about the spread of disease.
After revealing the opinions of the veterinarians about such a program actually reducing the possibility of disease through the use of medicated, enriched feed as well as staving off starvation during a time when the deer were at their weakest and greatest vulnerability, funding became the issue. I suggested that sportsmen as well as the community at large would respond to a request for donations. Many people just like looking for, looking at as well as photographing deer. Even though the very thought of starving animals is most abhorrent to the people of Michigan, no action was taken. The situation has remained analogous to the ranch foreman that allows his bosses’ herd to starve to death because they might get sick if he feeds them. Think that fellow would keep his job very long?
Enter the grey wolf. Out of this diminishing deer population it is estimated that each adult wolf can consume as many as 30 to 50 deer a year*… This does not account for those that they kill for sport. Using a conservative number of 40 deer per animal and given that the DNR says there are around 600 of them, I get a number of 24,000 to 29,000 deer a year, consumed. While it is true that wolves will eat many different animals, hoofed animals are their dietary preference.
The 2009 deer hunting season in the Northeastern U.P. was so bad that it lead one local resident to exclaim:
“The DNR might just as well be selling licenses to hunt wild elephants in this part of the state!”
Why did he say that?
Well, lets look at some other DNR numbers for the U.P. They estimate a total of 300,000 deer in the entire U.P. Of those, about 64,000 are killed through interaction with humans. That includes auto accidents and hunting. The DNR goes on to estimate that another 35,000 in a “mild” winter, 70,000 in a “moderate” winter and 105,000 in a ‘Severe” winter die of starvation.
Lets put some of those DNR numbers in perspective! 300,000 – 24,000 consumed by wolves = 276,000. 276,000 – 64,000 human related deaths = 212,000. Now, lets look at a worst case with the “Severe” winter starvation rate. That would be 212,000 – 105,000 = 107,000…. That is, 107,000 deer left in the 16,452 square miles of the U.P. or just about 6.5 deer per square mile in the spring.*
What happens to that population if there are two “Severe” winters in a row? What if there are three or more? While it is true that there will be some increase in the population through procreation, just how long is it before there is no longer a reasonable breeding population in certain areas of the U.P.? There have been buck only hunting laws in the Northeastern U.P. for many years because of a persistent low deer population. With a deer population at 6.5 per square mile or lower how many legal bucks might there be in say… A four square mile area open to hunting?
“As many as there are wild elephants” As the local resident exclaimed?
Now, the DNR has this to say about wolves and deer: “Wolves and deer evolved together, and deer possess physical and behavioral adaptations for avoiding wolf predation.” I find that statement quizzical. If the deer can avoid predation, how is it that they are eaten? Even so, the DNR may be right in most places through most of the year but the statement is not true in deep snow in the yards where the wolf can easily run the deer down and kill them. I have witnesses to their killing deer in the yards and letting them lay.
With the lack of management (feeding in the winter) of the deer population in the yards and growing numbers of wolves and the occasional cougar mixed in, I expect U.P. Michigan farmers to begin to see increased predation on their livestock. I also expect that family pets will begin disappearing and that, sooner or later, a child will be attacked as deer numbers continue to decline against rising wolf populations. (In fact, in April of this year the MDNR requested licenses from the Federal Government to allow them to kill wolves that have already begun killing livestock and pets. Apparently, there are enough of them that trapping and relocating them has been deemed, unpractical.) Additionally, it is known that the wolves are crossing the ice in winter and beginning to populate the Northern Counties of the Lower Peninsula. Might not part of their move south be linked to a lack of food in the north?
I am neither for nor against the wolf in Michigan. I cannot see that the citizens of the state benefit from their presence, however. I have yet to see a “Wolf Watching Station,” for example. I have seen restaurants that had as part of their “ambiance,” large numbers of deer that could be watched while one was having a first class lunch while the deer were in the yards in winter. I have seen countless vehicles stopped on the shoulders of U.P. roads because the occupants were, excitedly, watching deer.
Then there are the economic hardships for the business of the U.P. With the decline of the deer herd, business like lodgings are no longer filled to capacity as they once were. Grocery, gasoline, sporting goods and a myriad of other sales are no longer made because hunters are giving up on the U.P. and choosing to hunt down-state farm country or otherwise staying down-state and or not hunting at all. Even the locals are choosing not to hunt. In an area of the state that has been economically depressed for many years, the local population can ill afford further cuts to their livelihood because of the inaction of a State Government that has cared too little for too long.
In defense of the DNR’s efforts in the U.P. they are trying to work with private owners as well as improve the state owned areas of the yards in order to increase the amount of natural food in them. There are still no plans to supplementary feed the deer in the yards, however. This feeding ought be part of the program, helping the yards to regenerate natural browse while maintaining healthy and sustainable deer populations by reducing the impact of their presence on the native flora during their stay. This is particularly important the winters after the hardest of years because one summer season is not long enough for the browse to recover. This means that natural food will be in short supply for years to come even if the winters are mild and deer will continue to stave to death, in large numbers, unnecessarily.
Given the DNR’s move to improve the yards, is it too little to late for the Northeastern U.P? The decades old deer camps in the U.P. may already be gone forever, their mystique… The soft glow of their Colman and oil lamps… The hint of wood smoke… The sound of laughter… The smell of strong coffee and freshly baked bread… These were conditions that changed strangers into friends and friends into brothers and sisters. Will they become only the lingering musty memories of centuries past?
Recently an article appeared in the SooEvening News.com. The article outlined the experiences of Mr. Pat Dewitt in feeding deer in this area.
"For more than a century, a member of the Dewitt family has been providing feed throughout the winter months ever since his father's father came to Hulbert in 1889" "The bad news, however, is the numbers are way down. Historically, Dewitt estimated 1,000 deer yarded up each year in the Hulbert area." He guessed there are only about 200 deer throughout the range this winter and his numbers seem to reflect that trend. There were 175 deer working his property back in 2007, which fell to 150 by the end of 2008 and down to 100 by the time they dispersed in in 2009. Right now, the most he has seen is 47 deer. Dewitt quickly dismisses any speculation that some of the herd is wintering elsewhere. " This is their Deer Yard, " he said. This is where they come." <http://www.sooeveningnews.com/news/x1090823103/Tails-from-the-Hulbert-Deer-Yard>"
This article confirms my worst fears. The deer in the Northeastern counties of the U.P may be going extinct.
Good luck and good shooting!
* All numbers taken from the Michigan DNR website.
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Dave is proud to be a member of the Michigan Outdoor Writers ASSN., America's oldest State Outdoor Writers Association, as well as maintaining Active Membership in the Professional Outdoor Media Association.