By ADAM DeLAY
Capital News Service
LANSING — In an ailing state economy, the last thing Michigan farmers want is damaged crops.
However, they’ve been facing high levels of damage caused by deer, and the situation seems to be getting worse.
“It’s a huge problem in Northwest Michigan,” says Stephen Fouch, director of the Benzie County Michigan State University Extension and a partner at Jacob’s Farm in Traverse City.
“Deer do a lot of damage in our area, and farmers complain a lot about the damage. Farmers have gone out on their fields at night and there will be 25 deer, and the next night there’ll be 50 out there,” Fouch said.
Rich Earle, a wildlife biologist at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Traverse City office, says some crops are hurt more than others.
“I typically get more calls on cherries, but that’s because they’re our largest crop,” said Earle.
“A 1-or 2-year-old tree is most vulnerable because it’s lower to the ground, and the deer can eat some of the more vital parts of the tree,” he said.
Earle also said that other at-risk crops include apples, corn and soy beans.
Farmers can obtain DNR deer damage shooting to kill a specific number of animals on their property out of season. This option, however, has put farmers at odds with other hunters.
“Farmers want the population low and the hunters want the population high, so that there are more deer to hunt,” says Fouch, who is a hunter.
According to DNR, there are about 14,000 deer in Grand Traverse County, and 16 were killed there in 2007 under damage permits.
Tony Hansen, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservationist Clubs, says a better solution would be to let hunters onto a farmer’s property.
“There’s nothing wrong with the permits themselves,” said Hansen, “but we would prefer farmers to give hunters an opportunity to hunt the land themselves before seeking a deer damage permit.”
Fouch suggests that the best solution is for farmers to build fencing to keep the deer out, but adds that fencing is expensive, and “the burden of the fencing can’t be just the burden of the farmer, we need help from the state.”
Other farmers, however, say that fencing is not practical and that it’s better to take more deer.
“The fencing is a major hassle, and it can come down in the winter if there’s a lot of hard snow, so it’s not worth it,” says Brent Wagner, owner of Wagner Farms and president of the Northwest Farm Bureau, which serves Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties.
“It would be better to lower the population of the herd than to put up fencing,” he said.
As the problem worsens, some Michigan lawmakers are taking action. Rep. John Proos, R-St. Joseph, has introduced a bill to increase the number of out-of-season authorized shooters under a deer damage permit from three to 15.
The goal of the legislation is to make it easier for farmers to kill nuisance deer and better protect their crops, supporters say.
Rep. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, says the bill is a step in the right direction and wouldn’t change the regulations for obtaining a permit.
“With this bill you will still have to go through the permitting process. The bottom line is that this will make it easier for Michigan farmers to take game more efficiently,” said Schmidt, who is a co-sponsor of the legislation.
Other co-sponsors include Reps. Dudley Spade, D-Tipton; Matt Lori, R-Constantine; Kevin Daley, R-Lum; Joe Haveman, R-Holland; and Sharon Tyler, R-Niles.
Wagner, however, said he doesn’t feel that increasing the number of shooters will be effective.
“It doesn’t really matter if there’s one, five or 15 out there. You’ve only really got about one shot to take a deer down, and then the rest of them scatter.”
Schmidt said that increasing the number of shooters is only the beginning, and other measures may be considered later.
“The next logical step of course will be to look at the number of deer that a farmer can take.”
The bill is pending in the House Tourism, Outdoor Recreation and Natural Resources Committee.