MORENCI, Mich. - When Larry Gould sees the fluttering white tails of deer in the farm fields, he knows they probably just got a full belly of corn - his corn.
Michigan farmers are looking for respite from the damage caused by the state's significant deer population. Although not a new concern, the Michigan Farm Bureau brought the problem to the forefront recently with a policy that calls for the state to provide full compensation for damaged crops and livestock as well as the right to kill those deer on their land year-round.
The Farm Bureau wants the state to adopt its policy and said it might need to resort to legal action if the Michigan Department of Natural Resources “eliminates or severely restricts tools for landowners to control wildlife on their farms.”
“Animals can be trained,” Mr. Gould said. “They get accustomed to being fed, and when they aren't, they go to the farmers' land because that's what they're used to.”
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources says the state has 1.8 million deer. So far this hunting season, hunters have killed only about 288,000, which is significantly fewer than the 506,000 preseason estimate.
DNR spokesman Brad Wurfel said those reduced numbers show the state's management plan is working, and the doe population has been lowered. Farmers claim adjustments must be made to get that kill up to where it really manages the herd.
Though those in charge of managing the herd were disappointed, relaxing the state's hunting regulations is not the solution, said Jason Dinsmore, staff biologist for the Michigan United Conservation Club.
By selling hunting licenses, the DNR can keep track of deer numbers and allow for more or less hunting depending on the size of the herd, Mr. Dinsmore said. But unregulated hunting could lead to the desecration of the population.
“There are days when we lost a lot of our native species because of unregulated hunting,” Mr. Dinsmore said. “No species have become extinct because of regulated hunting.”
Instead of creating an open season on nuisance deer, Mr. Dinsmore said the Conservation Club and the DNR would like to see a better partnership between hunters and farmers. If farmers open their land to hunters, deer would likely be kept in check.
Michigan Farm Bureau President Wayne Wood said that a partnership like this would not be possible until the state comes up with better liability laws. Only then would farmers feel more comfortable allowing hunting on their land.
“We're more than willing to sit down with them to see how we can adjust the liability laws,” Mr. Wood said, explaining that farmers have been sued in the past when a hunter was hurt on their property. “We urge our members to make connections with hunters because there are a lot of very responsible hunters. Problem is that they don't come labeled so you're not sure.”
Mr. Wood said the problems deer have caused farmers is twofold and date back years. Not only do they cause crop damage but the animals have been known carriers of disease - most recently bovine tuberculosis, which was at one time a major problem in the state's northern deer population. When deer feed from the same areas as livestock, the chances that domesticated animals are infected become greater, he said.
And because farmers are in the food business, deer are naturally attracted to their land. The state does have crop damage hunting permits available to farmers but according to members of the Farm Bureau, not nearly enough are issued to really cull the problem.
“Our greatest concern is that the farmers are paying for the hunters' ability to have a high deer population,” Mr. Wood said. “Before the hunting community gets concerned, hopefully we can find some middle ground that alleviates our concerns about the level of the deer population.”
A hunter himself, Mr. Wurfel of the DNR said a compromise between farmers and hunters would be ideal. He added that one of the leading complaints among deer hunters in the state is that there are more hunters than public acreage.
“When you look at our agricultural centers, what you see is farmers with a problem, one that could be successfully met by brokering partnerships with the hunting community,” he said. “That's something we will continue to work toward with the Farm Bureau.