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Deer Range Improvement -- Key to a Changing Habitat

November 17, 2005

At the November Natural Resources Commission meeting, Department of Natural Resources Director Rebecca Humphries approved moving ahead with the purchase of two tracts of land in Schoolcraft County for $318,000. The 271.67 acres in Hiawatha Township will be set aside for deeryard purposes.

This is the most recent in a long line of deeryard acquisitions approved by the DNR over the years to improve deer habitat in the Upper Peninsula. In the UP, especially the Lake Superior Watershed, deer depend upon specific winter habitat to survive, said Bill Scullon, DNR wildlife biologist and coordinator of the Deer Range Improvement Program (DRIP).

"Over the last 100 years, there has been a decline in the winter habitat for white-tailed deer," Scullon said. "This decline has become much more pronounced in the UP in the last few years, as forest fragmentation and residential development continue to encroach on wildlife habitat. The UP is no longer the wild frontier that it once was."

To preserve winter habitat for deer, in recent years, the DNR has acquired 3,313 acres of deeryard habitat in the UP in Mackinac, Chippewa, Dickinson and Schoolcraft counties. Deeryard habitat is vitally important to the white-tailed deer population of the UP because of the harsh winter climate. These large areas are where deer congregate in winter. They provide vegetation -- white cedar in the eastern UP and hemlock and white pine species in the central UP -- for deer to browse through the winter months when snow cover makes it harder for deer to find food.

Some of the acquisitions are 40-acre parcels. The largest acquisition was 635 acres. The goal of all acquisitions is to keep adding to the seven active deeryard areas in the central and eastern UP. Scullon scouts for land to acquire all over the UP and sometimes into the far northern Lower Peninsula.

Conifers also provide adequate thermal cover for deer to survive in winter. Deer are highly adaptable animals, and they migrate to thermal cover during the harsh winter months, Scullon noted. The conifer cover provided by cedars, hemlocks and white pines intercepts snow, keeping deer better protected from the elements. Scullon added that studies with radio-collared deer in the UP have shown that deer have a tendency to return to the same deeryard every winter.

DRIP is funded by a portion of deer license revenues. From each license, the DNR sets aside $1.50 to improve and maintain deer habitat and acquire land for deer management purposes in the UP and the northern Lower Peninsula. To date, the program has identified 14,000 acres of land that it has recommended for purchase. Of that, 3,000 acres is pending approval.

The DRIP program began in 1971, under the leadership of retired Wildlife Division Chief Merrill "Pete" Petoskey, with the goal of maintaining sufficient habitat to support 1 million deer in Michigan by 1981. The success of DRIP and a series of mild winters in the 1980s drove the deer population to exceed 2 million in 1989.

That was just too many deer, so DNR wildlife managers worked with hunters and landowners to set a management goal of a smaller herd with a higher percentage of bucks. The long-range objective was a fall herd of 1.3 million deer.

Increased hunting of antlerless deer was encouraged to thin numbers of adult does, especially in areas with too many deer. The herd responded as intended -- there were approximately 20 percent fewer deer in fall 1993 as there were in 1989.

"We were harvesting record numbers of deer, but we could have taken lots more," Scullon said.

Today, the whitetail's reproductive capability and its ability to adapt to the variety of habitats across the state have resulted in a Michigan deer herd that's estimated at 1.7 million animals.

Over the last decade, however, the southern half of the Lower Peninsula has contributed an increasing percentage of the statewide deer population and now accounts for more than half the statewide total.

"That's one reason why it is critical that we conserve all available habitat in the UP we have now," Scullon said, noting the rate of land fragmentation in the UP is increasing and having an incredible impact on all wildlife.

Michigan hunters have supplied millions of dollars over the decades to support deer management initiatives, such as DRIP. Michigan hunters also have funded the development of hunting regulations based on scientific data. And they have provided funds to enforce those rules in the field.

Millions of dollars have been contributed for the acquisition of land and for the improvement of deer habitat on those lands. In many cases, legislative action to protect deer, acquire land, and improve deer range has been initiated by hunters themselves.

Hunters are key partners in the DNR's efforts to manage wildlife in Michigan.

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