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Issues of the Environment: Managing the deer population in Michigan

Chad Stewart, deer, elk and moose management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Chad Stewart
Chad Stewart, deer, elk and moose management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.




  • As whitetail deer populations overwhelm some communities in lower Michigan, natural resources managers have tried a number of strategies to reduce herds. They allow hunters to kill more deer each year. They’ve experimented with lower-cost licenses in parts of the state, and relaxed regulations to promote more harvests. The outcome? “Not effective,” said Chad Stewart, deer, elk and moose management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.


  • Desperate for a solution, some hunting advocates and state officials are trying a new tactic: Begging Lower Peninsula hunters to stop chasing antlers, and instead train their bow or rifle on does. The logic of that message is simple: Killing adult male deer has little effect on herd sizes, because it only takes a few bucks to impregnate many does. But killing adult females prevents the birth of twins or triplets in the spring, which would help curb populations. 


  • It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, hunters were plentiful and whitetail deer were scarce in the Lower Peninsula. Hunters were instructed to avoid does in hopes of expanding the herd. But participation in the pastime peaked at close to 800,000 in the late 1990s and has been declining ever since as hunters age out of the sport and younger Michiganders don’t replace them. There are about 540,000 deer hunters in Michigan today, and 100,000 of them are expected to hang up their rifles in the next decade.


  • Together, those hunters kill about 300,000 deer annually, most of them bucks. It’s not enough to keep the population stable. State officials estimate there are now upwards of two million deer in Michigan, most of them concentrated in the southern part of the state. For context, species managers were concerned about overpopulation 80 years ago when the state’s deer population was half as large.


  • The consequences of this imbalance are many. Farmers report losing as much as 20% of their crop to deer. They can devastate healthy meadow and forest ecosystems and pose a risk to endangered species that have more sensitive habitat requirements. Overpopulation leads to disease outbreaks when the herds are dense. The only reported case of Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (a usually fatal infection) in Michigan was identified in Washtenaw County in 2023. 


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And today, we're going to talk about the problem with deer in Michigan. Some say there are just too many. For context, 80 years ago, species managers were expressing concern about the overpopulation of deer in Michigan. Today, there are twice as many. There are a number of environmental and economic consequences to deer overpopulation. So, the question is centered on what to do. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Our guest has some formal professional insights about game management. Chad Stewart is deer, elk and moose management specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. And, Chad, thank you for making time today. I appreciate it.

Chad Stewart: Thanks for having me, David.

David Fair: Do you have a rough estimation of the number of deer we do have in Michigan?

Chad Stewart: That's always the first question that people ask, and, unfortunately, we don't. I can probably ballpark it, but I could not defend it scientifically.

David Fair: I've heard figures around 2 million.

Chad Stewart: I think that's fair. But, you know, whether it's 1.5 million, which can give you a pretty large error rate there. I couldn't say the difference, but I think it's easily safe to say that we have more than a million, and I certainly couldn't dispute 2 million.

David Fair: So, let's go from the game management perspective. Do you have a number in mind that you would consider to be a healthy population?

Chad Stewart: So, yeah. When we talk about management of white-tailed deer in the state of Michigan, we really take less emphasis on total numbers across the state because you can meet a statewide goal but still have either too many or too few deer in certain areas. So, we really try to focus on managing deer at county or specific deer management unit levels. And in order to do that, we look at a series of different metrics or numbers that help us indicate whether or not we have an increasing or stable or declining deer herd in some of those areas. And some of those metrics include information we get from deer hunters. But also, we also look at deer vehicle collisions that are being reported, as well as agricultural complaints.

David Fair: Let's talk about a population of a different sort. I think the number of deer hunters in Michigan peaked back in the late 90s--somewhere around 800,000. It is a significantly lower number today. How much is that playing into the problem of deer overpopulation?

Chad Stewart: I think it's one of the more important things that needs to be discussed, because, across our history, we've always managed our white-tailed deer herd using hunters. And what's happening now is we've gone from a population of over 800,000 hunters in 2000. And, at one point, I think we were above a million hunters, actually. But, in 2000, we had over 800,000 hunters. And now, we're probably somewhere in the range of 500 to 550,000. So, within a 20-year period, we've lost over a quarter million deer hunters in the state.

David Fair: Yeah, I was going to say we're going to lose more in the next decade, aren't we?

Chad Stewart: We are projected to lose probably over another hundred thousand or so over the next decade as hunters start to age out. And we simply don't have the number of hunters that are entering into hunting or that are younger, that are interested in hunting like we have in the past.

David Fair: This is Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU. We're talking with Chad Stewart from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources about managing the state's deer population. Chad, when we have such an imbalance between the number of deer and number of hunters, there are environmental and ecological consequences. How much agriculture and economic damage do overpopulation create in Michigan annually?

Chad Stewart: Yeah, I wish I had a really good number, but I would not hesitate to say that there's probably, I mean, certainly millions and possibly tens of millions of dollars in damage associated with white tailed deer damage and agricultural industries. And that number, again, seems to be on an upward trend. Some of the complaints and issues that we had that were being observed this summer far exceeded what we had in previous years. Now, some of that was probably drought-assisted with some of the weather conditions that we had in the early summer. But I think the trend is is definitely on the uprise in terms of the number of farmers and agricultural fields that are being impacted by high deer numbers.

David Fair: Even in more urban areas or suburban areas like Ann Arbor, residential property damage becomes a significant issue for some. There have been years where Ann Arbor, like several other cities, have hired sharpshooters to thin the local herd to become more manageable. That's expensive and, it seems to me and just my personal opinion, like a short-term solution at best. How does the DNR view sharpshooting programs?

Chad Stewart: Yeah, it's one of the tools that we used to assist communities with managing their deer issues. In many instances, communities don't have the opportunity or the structure or the layout to have a hunt. Maybe it doesn't necessarily align with their specific values in their community. So, we try to be very flexible in terms of how we can assist each community. And, certainly, we always recommend trying to get hunters into an area if the community is supportive of it. And the layout and landscape supports it as well. But in many instances, it doesn't. So, we certainly authorize and permit the use of sharpshooting after hunting season concludes. So, these communities can help manage their deer herds on a yearly basis.

David Fair: Michigan's been pretty aggressive in courting hunters from other states. It's encouraged more or extended hunting periods. Getting a license isn't overly difficult. It seems to me, most of those who are taking advantage are looking to get a deer that has really big antlers for the trophy room. Those are obviously males. Is it your goal to get hunters to focus more on the female deer population while they're out there?

Chad Stewart: Yeah. And that's one of the reasons that we started trying to emphasize the taking of antlerless deer this year in recent years. And we'vetried to make some regulation changes to make things easier for hunters to take antlerless deer. Certainly, antlerless deer are majority the female deer, and they're the ones that are going to contribute to next year's overall deer population by having fawns. So, you know, the management emphasis needs to be placed on antlerless deer. And we as a state have been falling short in terms of our overall approach towards antlerless deer management. So, we've been increasing the amount of time that hunters can have. We've been increasing the number of animals that hunters can take. We've increased the flexibility of licenses, so they can take out antlerless deer instead of antlered deer. Still, by and large, a majority of our harvest is made up of antlered deer, and that's a shift that we need to start moving away from if we want to try to continue to manage our deer herd with fewer and fewer hunter numbers.

David Fair: This is WEMU's Issues of the Environment. We're talking with Chad Stewart. He's a deer, elk and moose management specialist with the Michigan DNR. Obviously, hunting is not going to be the sole solution. There's never just one solution. So, we have to look at things from a bit broader perspective. As less people head out into the woods and we continue to see suburban sprawl and reduce the amount of land and habitat, traditionally, where deer live. From the larger societal perspective, how, in your view, should we weigh land management and the process of determining game management?

Chad Stewart: Yeah, it's a great question. Michigan is blessed with having a lot of public land, especially up north and into the Upper Peninsula. But a lot of our deer problems are associated in southern Michigan. Over half of our deer that are taken by hunters annually come from southern Michigan alone. And southern Michigan is largely private land. So, access to these deer herds that are abundant are a major issue for hunters. You know, hunters getting access to these locations where deer numbers are quite high is paramount in terms of how we can manage them. So, we really need to focus on continuing to build relationships with private landowners and trying to build up private land access programs to try to bring the number of hunters that we have in line with the areas that need the management the most.

David Fair: If you look at the world's animal and insect populations, it's not really a long journey from overpopulation to extinction. So, as you look forward, where do our decisions have to play to create a balanced ecosystem to accommodate all in healthy numbers?

Chad Stewart: Yeah, I think one of the major things that we can really focus on and emphasize moving forward is trying to find a way to get deer more broadly distributed into markets. We know that there are a lot of people who are food insecure in Michigan. And, certainly, deer are prized for the quality of their venison. You know, trying to establish some sort of improve connection with deer processors, ways to fund different programs that can get donation of deer taken by hunters into a food stream that are going to people who need it the most is one of the more important ways, I think, that we can take a first step approach to trying to balance our deer herd with our habitat and still rely on hunters and keep that sort of traditional approach in place.

David Fair: Well, Chad, I know we could go on for a long time, but I appreciate you taking the time to give us an oversight of what is happening and what may happen as we move forward. I appreciate it.

Chad Stewart: Thank you very much, David.

David Fair: That is Chad Stewart, a deer, elk and moose management specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He's been our guest on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. For more information, visit our website at wemu.org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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