But hunting and trapping over the past few decades has wiped out many of the Lower Peninsula’s top predators, such as wolves and cougars. Southern Michigan winters, mild compared to the harsh UP winters that limit the abundance of deer above the bridge, are warming as human consumption of fossil fuels warms the planet. And agricultural development and the growth of suburbs have added a buffet of food options that are not found in nature.
“When you have farming right next to some woodlands right next to some suburban areas, that’s great deer habitat,” Christensen said.
This combination of factors makes hunters one of the few reliable controls of the Lower Peninsula’s deer herd. When hunters were plentiful, it was easy for wildlife officials to adjust deer populations up or down by allowing hunters to kill more or less deer.
But Michigan hunting has been on a downward trajectory since the mid-1990s, except for a slight increase last year as COVID-19 introduced newcomers to outdoor recreation.
Even with that brief rebound, there were 270,000 fewer deer hunters in the Michigan woods last year than in 1996, and Stewart said the state could lose another 100,000 over the next decade.
These hunters also kill fewer deer per person – most are males which have little impact on population trends because they do not give birth.
The result? Michigan is at risk of rampant deer population growth and the spread of disease, habitat destruction and accompanying human conflict.
“In southern Michigan, maybe we are already there,” said Stewart, the state’s deer expert. “And if we’re not there in the lower north (peninsula), we’re probably very close.”
Amy Trotter, director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, which advocate for hunters’ interests, warned that deer populations fluctuate across the state and that overabundance in some areas doesn’t mean deer are everywhere.
She stressed the need for more public hunting lands in southern Michigan to give hunters more opportunities to reduce the area’s large deer herds.
“Too many deer”
Michigan wildlife managers do not keep estimates of deer abundance statewide. But localized data, including complaints from farmers about crop losses, hunter success rates and reports of deer-vehicle accidents, point to a growing herd on the Lower Peninsula.
It’s a different story in the Upper Peninsula, where recent severe winters have made deer rarer in some areas.
Stewart estimated that there could be as many as two million deer in Michigan today, up from nearly 1.7 million ten years ago and nearly one million in the 1940s – a number that cash managers of the time already saw it as problematic. The most recent growth has been concentrated in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, where most of Michigan’s human residents also live.
Deer are an essential part of a balanced ecosystem, consuming plants and providing food for carnivorous animals. But uncontrolled population growth unbalances the ecosystem and increases the danger to humans.
Car accidents are on the increase. The same goes for agricultural losses, as deer devour the crops. Forest understories disappear as deer scrub the saplings, eliminating habitat for species such as ground-nesting birds and creating a void for invasive species to fill. Diseases like Lyme disease, bovine tuberculosis and chronic wasting disease also spread more easily in dense herds, in turn threatening humans and livestock living nearby.
In parts of northern Michigan, said Marvin Roberson, forest ecologist for the Sierra Club Michigan chapter, cedar and hemlock forests are aging because deer gnaw away at all the new saplings.
“If you can’t regenerate two major components of your natural forest system because deer eat it before it regenerates, it’s a good ecological sign that you have too many deer,” said Roberson.
The growing deer populations in Leelanau County have created “a horrible problem in our orchards,” said Ben LaCross, who grows cherries on more than 800 acres on the northwestern Michigan peninsula.
LaCross has tried everything to keep deer away, from leaving bags of dried blood in the orchard to spraying hot sauce on the plants. Finally, a few years ago, he erected 8-foot-high fences to keep deer out.
LaCross sees it as a costly horror that unfortunately excludes neighbors who hiked and snowshoeed on his property. But with tens of thousands of dollars worth of trees lost each year, he said, he had little choice.
Crop losses in the Lower Peninsula “have only worsened with the increase in the deer population.” said Andrew Vermeesch, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “The higher the number of deer, the more conflict we see. “
These conflicts have peaked in parts of suburban Michigan, where minimal hunting pressure and plentiful food in the gardens have pushed deer numbers on the rise.
The question of how to react has pitted neighbors against neighbors, with some favoring government-approved murder programs that others see as inhuman and unnecessary.
In Meridian Township, local authorities began an annual deer cull in 2011 due to concerns about habitat destruction and complaints from residents.