Michigan has seen more hunters this year, but COVID-19 brought changes

By: - December 13, 2020 8:05 am

Johnathan Gabriel, an avid duck and goose hunter, looks to the sky for incoming fowl while hunting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 cases first appeared in Michigan in March, Beaver Lake Hunt Club General Manager Todd Reilly immediately thought of the upcoming firearm deer hunting season — the 15-day period in November when hunters typically pack the Northeast Michigan club’s 100-year-old lodge to share meals, drink beer and play cards with longtime and newfound friends.

Reilly knew the pandemic meant that camaraderie could end in serious sickness and death for club members, especially considering many are older and susceptible to severe COVID-19 cases. As gravely ill patients flooded intensive care units and the death toll rose last spring, the manager knew he needed to protect his members and decided he’d close the facility’s lodge and kitchen this hunting season. While individuals couldn’t gather like they once had, they were still able to hunt there, and Reilly provided electric hookups for those who wanted to forgo a nearby motel room and instead set up a camper.

The Beaver Lake Hunt Club members gather before the pandemic. The club closed its lodge and kitchen this year because of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Beaver Lake Hunt Club

“I figured [COVID-19] would rear its ugly head again, and it did,” Reilly said, explaining his decision to close the lodge and kitchen. “Our members social distanced and did the hunt. Things weren’t the same this year, but we still had a great hunt.”

Reilly’s story is one that played out across Michigan this year, when a global pandemic led to a hunting season unlike any other in modern history. The firearm season took place in the middle of one of Michigan’s deadliest months during the pandemic — cases, deaths and hospitalizations soared in the state in November. Michigan’s second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths — 2,134 — occurred last month. The highest number of deaths in the state happened in April, when 3,745 individuals died. 

“We made the right move,” Reilly said of the decision to close the lodge and kitchen. “I don’t know how many people have been sick due to hunting, being in close quarters; I just know people are getting Covid at a pretty good rate.”

Prior to the regular firearm season starting on Nov. 15, health officials worried the culmination of people traveling to, and congregating at, deer camps and the general public’s potentially large Thanksgiving gatherings — two major events happening around the same time — could cause an even greater explosion of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and further sink an already stressed health care system in which traumatized nurses and doctors have faced overflowing intensive care units.

Officials cautioned that there’s not yet definitive data on how many hunters traveled to and gathered at camps with groups of people from outside their homes. But representatives from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and various wildlife and conservation groups said it appears that many of the more than 600,000 people who purchased deer licenses this year significantly revamped their season due to the pandemic — including staying close to home to hunt and social distancing while hunting. 

Deer camp owners also shuttered their facilities’ doors throughout the state in order to curb the spread of the disease.

Rico Torreano closed his deer camp in Marquette this year due to concerns about COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Rico Torreano

“Thanksgiving is usually a big hunting day, but we heard from members that they didn’t travel for Thanksgiving like they normally do, which is great for us,” said Nick Green, spokesman for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, the country’s largest statewide conservation organization whose members include more than 40,000 hunters, anglers, trappers, and conservationists. 

“Even if they’re out with someone not from their household, they’re wearing a mask and trying to stay six feet away. From our lens and the people we have contact with the most, they heeded those warnings and tried to recreate by themselves.”

A Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) spokesperson said this week they are not aware that deer camp gatherings have had any impact on COVID-19 cases. With both the end of the firearm season — which concluded Nov. 30 — and Thanksgiving being about two weeks ago, officials cautioned the potential impact of deer camps and holiday gatherings on COVID-19 cases may have yet to be fully seen. 

Taylor Ridderbusch, Great Lakes organizer for Trout Unlimited, works his dog, Dagwood, through steadiness training near the Maple River before bird season. Photo by Nick Green of Michigan United Conservation Clubs

But the state has put restrictions in place for indoor gatherings, restaurants, high schools, colleges and more, which officials have said are working to stop the pandemic’s spread. Since Thanksgiving and the end of the firearm season, COVID-19 hospitalizations have steadily declined in most areas of the state. Six of Michigan’s eight health care regions saw declines in COVID-19 hospitalizations this week compared to last; Region 5 in southwest Michigan saw a slight increase this week in hospitalizations and Region 7 in northern Michigan saw no change in its hospitalization numbers, according to DHHS. 

The muzzleloading season ends Sunday, and the archery season is all that’s left for hunting this year. Chad Stewart, a DNR deer biologist, said the muzzleloading and archery hunters tend to be isolated and don’t typically gather socially like firearm deer hunters, which means they’re expected to have a negligible impact on pandemic cases.

State officials pointed out during a Monday afternoon press conference that while COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have slowed in Michigan, they remain high. 

“While some things are improving … we are still in the midst of our second surge in Michigan,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, said at Monday’s press conference.

“Unfortunately, we are now seeing over 100 deaths a day on some days, more than seven times the amount of deaths we saw in early October,” Khaldun continued.

Rico Torreano closed his deer camp in Marquette this year due to concerns about COVID-19. | Photo courtesy of Rico Torreano

Using data from Dec. 5, the DHHS reported Tuesday that Michigan had the fourth-highest COVID-19 death rate in the country. As of Monday, 79% of Michigan’s hospital beds were filled, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during Monday’s press conference. There have been a total of 430,780 COVID-19 cases in Michigan and 10,662 deaths, the DHHS reported Saturday.

It’s these kinds of numbers that prompted Rico Torreano to close his deer camp in Marquette this season — a move he called devastating, but necessary to protect his loved ones.

“Deer camp is the highlight of the outdoorsman lifestyle,” Torreano said. “It’s like the holidays for outdoorsmen. But we couldn’t have it this year. It killed people to not do something you’ve done all your life, but you can’t take chances with your family.”

‘Flat out: wear a mask’

State Rep. John Chirkun (D-Roseville), who contracted COVID-19 during a deer hunting trip in November, said while it was scary to learn he tested positive, he believes hunting remains one of the safest activities during the pandemic because those involved spend much of their time outdoors and relatively isolated.

“When you hunt, it’s solitary,” Chirkun said in an interview Monday. “Most of us, we hunt in the morning until noon, come in and have lunch, take a nap, and go back out again. You’re in the woods and not around anybody. I personally don’t think if it wasn’t for the one individual having [COVID-19], we would’ve never gotten it. Hunting is probably one of the safer sports.”

Chirkun traveled to a cabin in Evart for a hunting trip with six people; immediately prior to the trip, he tested negative for COVID-19. However, one of the people hunting with him “came down with what seemed like a head cold” and ended up having COVID-19, which then spread to all but one of the others in the group, Chirkun said. During their trip, nobody went to restaurants or bars before knowing they had COVID-19 in order to avoid being around others during the pandemic, the state representative noted.

Rep. John Chirkun

After returning home from the hunting trip on Nov. 17, Chirkun and his wife ended up quarantining because they both had COVID-19. Both he and his wife are feeling better, the legislator said Monday.

“I have diabetes and AFib; trust me, I was concerned,” Chirkun said of his COVID-19 diagnosis. “But luckily I didn’t have to go to the hospital.”

Following his experience with COVID-19, Chirkun wants people to pay attention to something for which he’s long advocated: “Flat out, wear a mask,” he said.

“Seventy-five percent of the Republicans on the floor wear masks; there’s 25% that don’t,” he said, referring to state lawmakers. “… You see the show Rudy Giuliani put on [in Lansing], and all the Republicans didn’t have a mask on, only the Dems did. The people sitting next to him probably got it. I don’t think we should have session [Tuesday]. I want everybody in that room to get [COVID-19] tested. If they give it to somebody else and someone dies, they should be charged with a crime.”

Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, spoke for hours without a mask at a Dec. 2 legislative hearing in Lansing. Days after, he was hospitalized for COVID-19 and has since been released. He was joined by fellow Trump attorney Jenna Ellis, who also tested positive. 

State House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) announced Monday that the House would not be voting or taking attendance Tuesday because “multiple representatives have requested time to receive results from recent COVID-19 tests before returning to session, out of an abundance of caution.” On Tuesday, the Michigan House canceled session dates and committee hearings for the rest of the week because a staffer, who has not been named, tested positive for COVID-19.

The state Senate said Monday evening there would be no voting on Tuesday, but was back in session on Wednesday and Thursday.

State extends COVID-19 restrictions amid ‘alarmingly high’ hospitalizations

Hunting license numbers soar

While the way people hunted this year changed because of the pandemic, the number of people who purchased hunting licenses, and specifically deer hunting licenses, soared above last year’s numbers. 

That’s likely, officials from state and wildlife organizations said, because individuals were seeking ways to recreate outdoors. In turn, the 5.3% increase in deer licenses bought this year translates to additional dollars for the state’s conservation efforts that have seen a significant financial hit from years of declines in purchased hunting licenses. Hunting and fishing licenses, as well as equipment purchased for hunting and fishing, are one of the main funders of the DNR’s conservation efforts.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in youth licensed buyers and women licensed buyers,” said Green of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs. “[Hunting] was an old boys, male-dominated sport, and in the last decade, women have been the fastest growing demographic and more minorities are coming in, too.” 

Every year, more people purchase deer licenses than any other kind of hunting license in Michigan, and those funds in turn go to the Michigan DNR’s fish and wildlife management, habitat protection, and other conservation efforts. But, as the hunting population ages and fewer younger people become hunters, those license dollars continue to dwindle — and, as of now, the state has yet to find other revenue sources to make up for that decline.

Dr. Jason Garvon, a biology professor at Lake Superior State University and member of the Michigan Wildlife Council

“Hunting numbers are going down, and there’s not really a plan B,” said Dr. Jason Garvon, a biology professor at Lake Superior State University who Whitmer appointed to the Michigan Wildlife Council. “Conservation wise, management wise, that’s pretty scary to see those decreasing numbers.”

As dollars from hunting licenses drop, there’s a variety of ways that impacts conservation efforts in the state, Garvon explained, including the possibility of “losing” different species — meaning “numbers drop to points where a species is not common anymore” as opposed to full extinction. 

“When funding gets restricted and we have less funding from license fees, we worry about those other species that are important to the ecosystem but aren’t huntable; we worry they get left by the wayside,” Garvon said.

This year, 611,342 individuals purchased a deer license in Michigan, which is up 5.3% over last year’s 580,171 licenses, according to the DNR. That number is still lower than five years ago, when 650,903 people purchased deer licenses. The total number of hunting licenses bought in the state is 666,422 this year, a 5.5% jump over last year’s 631,400.

“We think it’s COVID-related,” said Stewart, a deer, elk and moose management specialist for the DNR. “These are trends we’ve seen throughout the year. Going back to spring turkey season, right when Covid hit, we had an increase of license sales; fishing sales were up in the summer, and off roading vehicle permits were up this year. There seems to be a sense of people wanting to get outdoors more.” 

Women and younger individuals — especially those ages 9 and under — make up the two fastest growing groups of hunters this year, according to the DNR. There has been a 16.3% increase in the number of  hunting license customers who are between the ages of zero and 9 years old; 14,136 individuals in that age bracket received hunting licenses, compared to 12,157 in 2019. There was a 14.56 percent jump in the number of women hunters this year, with 73,268 women buying licenses in 2020. In 2019, there were 63,958 women. With both of these groups, the 2020 numbers remain lower than 2015 numbers.

Michigan United Conservation Club Public Information Officer Nick Green’s lab, Annie, returns with a harvested blue wing teal in mid-Michigan on opening day of teal and early goose season. | Nick Green

“I’d love to think this is the new normal,” Garvon said, referring to the increase of licenses. “Maybe people forgot there’s this wonderful outdoor world all around us that’s accessible, especially in our state where we have so much public land. It’s a great social distancing thing; it’s a great thing for exercise. Maybe we’re remembering that.”

Green too said he hopes these numbers will continue to grow, as opposed to dipping once the pandemic is over. 

“I hope the DNR will be able to find out what we can do to keep people around in 2021 and going forward,” he said. “If we lose licensed buyers as we have, we won’t have small game hunting by 2040.”

“We’re constricting a pot that’s not getting money elsewhere,” Green continued. “If we can’t turn this around, how are we going to fund conservation? There’s no good answer yet. We don’t have a better funding model than hunting and angler license dollars. If we don’t figure it out soon, our public and federal lands here in Michigan are going to be in trouble.”

Faced with hunger during pandemic, more hunters donate venison

As more people turn to hunting this year, COVID-19 has also prompted an increase in the number of hunters looking to donate venison to Michigan families facing food insecurity, said Dean Hall, the executive director of Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger. 

A client picks up venison from the CARES in Farmington Hills food pantry. Photo courtesy of Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger

Last year, Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger, an all-volunteer nonprofit, collected more than 85,000 pounds of venison that created over 340,000 meals, which were given to food pantries, food banks and shelters throughout the state, Hall said. The executive director expects that 340,000 to increase this year, as more hunters look to donate food to help a rising number of individuals and families facing hunger during the pandemic. Feeding America estimates that 19.1% of Michiganders will experience food insecurity during the pandemic, compared to 13.6% prior to COVID-19.

“A lot of people lost jobs this year; when you go from collecting a solid income to all of a sudden you have nothing and you don’t have much of a reserve to fall back on, you can depend on the help of family if they can help or from social organizations, like the food banks, pantries and shelters,” Hall said.

“For a lot of people, it’s a hard thing to do,” he continued. “A lot of people have a lot of pride in being able to provide for themselves and their families. But they’re thankful there are organizations like ours, the Food Bank Council of Michigan, and other pantries that care for people who need the assistance.”

Hall said his nonprofit has received “quite a few more calls this year on our hotline than in the past, and more emails as well,” both from hunters wanting to donate venison and those who are in need of food.

Hunting license costs

Base license

An annual base license is required for any resident or nonresident who hunts in Michigan, unless otherwise noted. The base license allows hunters to hunt small game and to purchase additional hunting licenses.

Junior – $6
Resident – $11
Nonresident – $151
Senior (65+, Michigan residents only) – $5

Hunt/fish combo
(Includes base license, two deer and annual all-species fishing)
Resident – $76
Nonresident – $266
Senior (65+, Michigan residents only) – $43

Antlerless deer
Resident and nonresident – $20 (may have up to 10 antlerless private land permits for the season)
Antlerless deer managed area hunts

Application (required) – $5
License – $25
Bear Participation (No-Kill-Tag Bear License) – $15

Resident license – $20
Nonresident license – $20
Senior license (65+, Michigan residents only) – $8

Deer Combo
Resident – $40 (two deer licenses: $20 regular, $20 restricted)
Nonresident – $190 (two deer licenses: $20 regular, $170 restricted)
Senior (65+, Michigan residents only) – $28 (two deer licenses: $8 regular, $20 restricted)

Elk (Michigan residents only)
Application (required) – $5
License – $100
Fur Harvester
License – $15.00
Senior (65+, Michigan residents only) – $6.00

Mentored youth hunting license 
No base license required

Military licenses
$0 (full time active-duty and 100 percent disabled veterans, Michigan residents only)
Small game nonresident
7-day license – $80.00
3-day license – $50.00

Turkey – fall
License – $15.00
Senior (65+, Michigan residents only) – $6.00

Turkey – spring
License – $15.00
Senior (65+, Michigan residents only) – $6.00

License – $12.00
HIP registration/Migratory Bird Hunter – free (required for those who hunt migratory birds, including ducks, geese, woodcock, snipe, rails, etc.)
Federal Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp (Duck Stamp) – $27.50 (required for waterfowl hunters ages 16 and older)
A non-resident 7-day ($80) or a non-resident 3-day ($50) small game license allows the purchase of a waterfowl license without the purchase of a base license

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.