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Published: Sunday, 11/13/2005

Deer distribution changes

The romance of generations-old hunting camps no doubt will draw tens of thousands of deer hunters to Michigan's North Woods come Tuesday morning, opening day of the time-honored firearms deer season.

But don't be surprised if thousands of individuals, after spending a few days up North for old time's sake, turn around and hunt closer to home.

That is because the southern region - roughly south of a Bay City-to-Muskegon line - has become the prime deer country.

"People are still going up North for traditional deer hunting," said Rodney Clute, big-game specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "And then they're hunting deer when they get back, too."

Bowhunting season, which began Oct. 1, runs through tomorrow. The firearms season runs through Nov. 30, and bowhunting resumes Dec. 1 to Jan. 1. A muzzleloading rifle season also follows firearms season. So there is plenty of time to hunt.

Put simply, Clute says, "southern Michigan is where we have the bulk of the deer in the state." The MDNR estimates that the southern lower zone has around 850,000 deer, or more than the northern lower (500,000) and Upper Peninsula (335,000) combined.

Though he notes that some hunters are reacting to the new realities of deer distribution in Michigan, the lure of the North Woods camp tradition remains strong. "Hunters are not responding quickly at all. [Only] slowly they are figuring it out."

For one thing the North Woods are not the old north woods of the supposed heydays. They have matured, leaving less prime habitat for deer, which are brush or edge animals, not big open-woods animals.

For another, some parts of the North have been "city-fied," transformed from rugged, hardscrabble lands to groomed resorts and vacationland subdivisions, condo complexes and the like. That translates into less elbow room for hunting. In any case, the deer like it down south, where there is plenty of food, cover and milder climate.

While more than 750,000 deer licenses are bought, not all hunters participate in all seasons. But it is safe to say that more than 700,000 hunters will take part in at least some of the firearms season. Deer hunting means roughly $500 million to the state economy. It is an industry unto itself.

In 2004 some 265,000 deer were taken in the gun season, and a similar bag is forecast this season. The bags, as with the herds, are expected to be down in the northern lower and Upper Peninsula.

The southern lower zone is expected to account for 58 percent of the overall bag, Clute said. Statewide the preseasons herd was estimated at 1.7 million animals, still very sizable.

The MDNR also has some words of caution about three diseases.

The incidence of tuberculosis, or TB, which has been the target of control measures and deer-herd reduction especially in the northeast lower peninsula for a decade or more, appears to dropping. "But it's not over yet," notes Clute.

"We're not finding new areas [of infection]," he said. In the four-county core TB area - Montmorency, Alpena, Alcona, and Oscoda - the incidence rate is below two percent for the seond straight year. Note that venison from deer having TB is safe to eat if thoroughly cooked. But Clutes notes simply, "If it's a healthy looking and acting animal it should not be a concern."

Hunters are urged to submit deer heads for testing at DNR check-stations, and suspect carcasses and heads should be brought to a DNR office, where they will be collected and the hunter given a replacement kill-tag to take another animal. Check-sites are posted on the state Web site, www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Random TB testing will be done in the core counties and in adjoining Otsego, Crawford and Presque Isle counties.

Another disease, eastern equine encephalitis, has turned up in some deer in Kent, Montcalm and Ionia counties. Some deer have succumbed to EEE, Clute noted, but even infected deer will not pass on the infection to humans.

However, mosquitoes are the carriers of encephalitis and could transmit it to humans by biting them. So carry and use repellent if hunting in the affected three counties and if a freeze has not finished off the mosquitoes. "It's not a major concern," said Clute. "But mosquitoes can pass it to humans. The deer are a dead-end host."

So far, deer also have been a dead-end host, and just plain dead, when infected with CWD, or chronic wasting disease.

This dread infection is a relative of mad cow disease, but unlike mad cow it has not been shown to have jumped the "species boundary" into humans. Moreover, it has not been detected in Michigan (or Ohio or Pennsylvania). But CWD is as near as Wisconsin and Illinois.

"If you see a deer that is clearly sick, clearly unhealthy, don't shoot it but notify the DNR immediately," advises Clute. Be sure to report exact location.

"It will still be there next morning if it is that sick [with CWD]." Afflicted deer will be drooling, disoriented, malnourished and severely thin, lethargic, and they uncharacteristically will exhibit no fear.

The MDNR intends to test 15 to 20 deer per county for CWD. But targeted surveillance in areas of known infected or suspect animals has proven far more effective than random testing, Clute said. Call the toll-free anti-poaching hotline, 1-800-292-7800, or contact a local MDNR office to report suspect deer.



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