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Michigan aims to re-acquaint hunters with small game

September 1, 2010 by Dave Spratt

It’s a winter afternoon in Kalamazoo County. Luke Haynes comes home from school, gnaws on a piece of jerky and considers his options. If today’s quarry is squirrels, he’ll saddle up his mule Ruth, grab the .22 and hit the woods behind the house, where Dolly, the family’s Jack Russell terrier, will tree squirrels for Luke to shoot. If Luke feels like hunting rabbits, he’ll grab a shotgun and unleash Buddy the beagle. Occasionally he takes the stealth approach, in which case he’ll leave the dogs behind so he can stalk the rabbits with the .22. Head shots, he says, make for a much tidier cleaning job.

Luke HaynesLuke was one of three lucky Michiganians to win the first-ever Pure Michigan Hunt, giving him a free crack at all the limited-draw hunting tags offered in Michigan for 2010: turkey, bear, elk, antlerless deer and managed waterfowl. But Luke hardly needed to win a contest to hunt. Just 13, he already has killed an 8-point buck and a double-bearded tom turkey. This fall he will go after bears in the Upper Peninsula, elk in the northern lower and whitetails near his Vicksburg home. If all Luke’s 2010 plans come to fruition he will be a more accomplished big-game hunter by his 14th birthday (it’s in January) than many guys triple or even quadruple his age. But it all started with Luke’s passion for hunting small game.

“In the winter time I do it after school probably two or three times a week,” he said. “I’ll just jump on my mule and she isn’t gun shy or anything. When we’re back there I can shoot the gun right off of her. And that makes it pretty nice because you don’t have to walk very far.”

Small game hunting is in the Haynes family’s blood. Luke’s dad Scott grew up with a father who hunted rabbits and squirrels, in a home that was always equipped with a beagle and a squirrel dog. The family’s business (they currently own Stubby’s Smokehouse & Specialty Meats in Vicksburg; if you’re ever there don’t leave without some jerky or sugar-cured bacon – they are off the charts) has taken them to various parts of Michigan, including Manistee County, Dowagiac and Manchester. At every stop the entire family hunted raccoons and other small game, including mom Kelly and daughters Caitlin, 20, and Lindsey, 18.

“My dad liked to squirrel hunt and rabbit hunt,” Scott Haynes said. “He didn’t hunt deer or bear at all. That’s how I got started and it kind of passed on to them. And I know a lot of people don’t any more, but we eat all that. When we moved back here from up north my kids didn’t even know what Burger King was … they’ve all shot squirrels and rabbits. And they even know how to clean them, which is pretty bizarre nowadays.”

He’s right: People like the Haynes family are becoming rarer and rarer in our fast-paced, electronic world. Hunter numbers have dwindled across the board, partly due to demographic factors like aging Baby Boomers who swelled hunting’s ranks in the 1960s and ‘70s, and partly to due modern life that’s more urbanized and jam-packed with other activities. At the same time, the rise of white-tailed deer and more specialized pursuits like waterfowling have further drained folks away from small game hunting. The 2007 Small Game Harvest Survey by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment showed that the number of small game hunters in Michigan had declined by 70 percent since the mid-1950s and continues to tick downward.

Michigan’s game managers want to fix that, for a couple reasons. First, there’s plenty of small game to be had and it can be reached pretty easily in small woodlots and larger tracts of public land, so a squirrel or rabbit hunt can be done in an afternoon.  And small game hunt is more likely to produce interactions between hunter and hunted than, say, a cold day in a deer blind. Further, small game hunting teaches valuable lessons in woodsmanship and game observation that stick. Studies have shown that young hunters like Luke Haynes are much more likely to stick with hunting if they start out hunting small game. That’s why Doug Reeves, the assistant director for the Michigan DNRE’s Wildlife Division, starts newbie hunters – about three or four a year -- with squirrels and rabbits.

 “What I think (small-game hunting) does is you have a higher likelihood of encountering game, it can help people to learn about movements of game in a less intense situation than sitting out there on November 15 with everybody else out there,” said Reeves, who has introduced numerous women and children to hunting. “Small-game hunting gets people comfortable with being in the woods, especially if they’re hunting with a mentor who has been out and about. They may not necessarily be successful, but they can have a good time and not have to sit there until they’re frozen. They don’t necessarily have to be as quiet, they can carry a shotgun instead of a rifle. There are a lot of things that make it a great entry program.”

Russ Mason, who as the head of the Wildlife Division is Reeves’ boss, says it’s critical for the state’s wildlife managers to foster small-game hunting in hopes that it can reverse or at least slow the decades-long decline in hunter numbers. It’s a practical concern, because hunters are the ones footing the bill for most wildlife programs through license sales and the excise taxes they pay on guns, ammunition and other gear, and dwindling hunter numbers mean less money for things like habitat improvements and expanding public lands that are used by hunters and non-hunters alike. But Mason also admits no one is certain how to stop the bleeding, and that’s why the state is trying a number of strategies to get people, especially young people, back in the field.

“It’s an exhaustive list because I don’t know what the hook is,” Mason said. “Each strategy is more or less effective, and some are better than others. It’s perfectly obvious that population demographics are changing, it’s true that there are more birdwatchers, but at the same time it is also perfectly clear that through excise taxes and license fees hunters are the backbone. Birdwatchers aren’t going to get taxed. We need to continue to provide opportunities that bring people into the shooting sports and hunting that will ensure they’ll exist in the future. It’s a matter of necessity.”

For now the DNRE will try a shotgun approach, Mason said, in hopes that one or more ideas will work. Among those under way or being considered:

  • Focusing hunter access funding to pay farmers in southern Michigan who allow youth and apprentice hunters to hunt small game on their private land. The program could employ a sliding scale that would pay more for access during turkey season, and even more to allow deer hunting. Mason said he hopes the program will double or triple the amount of private land enrolled in the Hunter Access Program.
  • Improving habitat on public and private land in the Thumb, in hopes that landowners there will be more likely to allow hunters on their property.
  • Restoring small-game habitat on Michigan’s 480,000 acres of state game areas. “Entropy has taken hold on a number of those properties and they are not as useful as they once were for hunting,” Mason said. “We intend to improve management strategies in those places to improve small-game opportunities.” That could mean cutting trees to create brush piles and larger open fields, preventing brush from taking over existing fields, and altering crop practices on public land to improve small-game hunting.
  • Capitalizing on the state parks system for teaching hunter education. All summer long, Michigan residents are camping in state parks with time on their hands and kids to entertain. That’s a perfect combination for hunter education, Mason said. The DNRE could also use its Ralph A. McMullen Conference Center to teach small-game seminars similar to a deer-hunting seminar held in 2009.
  • DNRE biologists have a directive to work with private and non-profit groups like the National Wild Turkey Federation to provide education and outreach designed to attract young hunters.
  • Establishment of a youth council that will allow young hunters to have a voice in policies that affect them.

While people ponder all those big ideas, Michigan’s small game seasons are approaching and the woods are full of squirrels and rabbits. The season for both species opens on September 15 and runs into March. Squirrel season ends March 1; rabbit season, which includes cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares, closes March 31.

Adam Bump, a wildlife specialist with the DNRE, said squirrels are practically perfect for the beginning hunter because they’re so easy to find. Fox squirrels inhabit the smaller woodlots that intersperse with croplands in southern Michigan. Gray squirrels (including their black color phase) are found all over Michigan and tend to favor larger expanses of forest. The smaller red squirrels are also found everywhere in Michigan.

“I think most of the (state) game areas that have a forest component would produce squirrels and would be worth giving a try,” he said. “Little woodlots are sometimes great and they’re probably not being utilized for much else, especially in that early season. Squirrels are the ideal starter species, on a nice winter afternoon in southern Michigan, for taking kids out to get that experience.”

Squirrel hunting can be done a variety of ways, too. Most squirrel hunters use a small rifle like .22-caliber rimfire. Some hunters bring a dog to tree their quarry, then plink the squirrel off the tree. Others walk the woods slowly and quietly, then stalk into position when they see a squirrel. In nut-righ areas it’s possible to simply sit on a stump and wait for the squirrels to become active. Bump said the nice thing about squirrels is they’re prolific and their populations tend to remain stable.

“If you know a place where you’ve seen squirrels before, you’re going to find them there,” he said.

Rabbit hunting can be something more of a challenge, but is also an excellent way to start off a new hunter because you’re always on the move.

“It’s a little more action-oriented, so you’re walking and actively trying to get them up and running,” Bump said.

 In northern Michigan, snowshoe hare numbers have shown a long-range decline but there are still plenty of rabbits for hunters who want to pursue them, Bump said. Snowshoes hang out in dense cover such as cedar swamps, and can also be found in young forest areas. Most rabbit hunters use beagles to scare up the game, but hunters without dogs can readily find rabbit sign if there’s snow. Once you’re where the rabbits are, it’s a matter of kicking the brush and spooking them out.

 In southern Michigan, hunters find cottontails by walking along field edges and fencerows kicking brush piles and thick vegetation where bunnies may hide.

“You don’t need a lot of space to find rabbits,” Bump said.

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