A male whitetail deer stands in a field.
Whitetail Deer High populations of whitetail deer can threaten preserves through over-browsing and transmitting disease. © Janet Haas

Stories in Michigan

Deer Hunting in Michigan

We employ hunting as a tool to reduce the damage deer cause, allowing natural communities to recover their full vigor and diversity.

All Nature Conservancy preserves in Michigan are threatened in some way by deer, either through over-browsing or the transmission of disease to other species (i.e., moose) that are conservation targets. Managing white-tailed deer populations through hunting is an important step in reducing deer damage and protecting the biodiversity of our preserves. At some of our preserves, deer populations have grown well beyond the ability of the natural communities to withstand their effects. 

Unnaturally High Deer Population

White-tailed deer are native to Michigan, but over the last six decades their population has grown to levels that are much higher than any prior period. Regional deer densities in Michigan have changed a great deal since the 1970s. Statewide deer population estimates indicate that the population grew steadily between the 1970s and early 1990s with a gradual long-term declining trend since 1995. It is important to note that population trends are not consistent across the state, with stronger declines in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula and increases in the southern Lower Peninsula.1

Threat to Ecological Systems

Natural ecosystems are not adapted to these high population levels and are being degraded through over-browsing of the shrub and ground cover layers. Some shrubs, such as the Canada yew, are in severe decline throughout most of the state due to this browsing pressure. Several tree species (such as northern white-cedar, sugar maple, eastern hemlock, and several oaks) that are preferred as browse are failing to regenerate where deer numbers are high, and if the pressure continues the composition of Michigan’s forests will be changed, perhaps irreversibly.

Deer also prefer some herbaceous plants over others, and the decline or disappearance of some species has been attributed to deer browsing activity. These changes in vegetation that result from deer browsing have been shown to affect birds. In heavily browsed areas, the shrub layer is virtually absent or is populated almost entirely by species (such as balsam fir or leatherwood) that deer tend not to eat. Animals that nest or forage in the shrub layer are not, in some cases, able to adapt to such dramatic changes in forest structure and must find suitable habitat elsewhere or persist at low numbers.

Deer also carry brain worm, a parasite that does not seriously harm deer but that is fatal to moose. Moose cannot survive in areas that have even moderately high deer populations and are limited to areas where deep winter snow keeps the deer population low, such as in the Lake Superior watershed where annual snowfall may average more than 200 inches. Deer thus affect the composition of the faunal and floral communities in ecological systems throughout Michigan and have put some species and ecological systems at risk.

Hunting Helps to Abate the Threats

The Conservancy owns 50,062 acres in Michigan, scattered across 33 preserves.2 Hunting deer on Conservancy preserves will have an undetectable effect on the deer population that is spread over roughly 36,000,000 acres in the state. Managing the statewide deer population to levels within the carrying capacity of the ecological systems of the state is a challenge that requires strategies far broader than hunting on Conservancy preserves.

However, if the Conservancy is to achieve conservation of the ecological systems and species that occur on our preserves, then hunting is a valuable strategy. First, harvesting deer effectively on our preserves can reduce browse pressure directly through a short-term reduction in the local deer population. Second, hunting deer on preserves where moose are a conservation target can help to keep the deer population at a low level so that moose are not as likely to contract brain worm. Third, allowing hunting on our preserves helps to ensure that the preserves do not become “refuges” for deer during the hunting season. Deer learn to avoid areas where hunting pressure is high and move into areas that are not hunted as heavily. If we choose not to harvest deer from preserves in areas with high deer density, we are probably helping to exacerbate the negative effects of deer browsing in the very areas we are seeking to conserve. Once hunting is established, deer may learn to avoid the preserve and adopt movement patterns that lessen browsing pressure in the preserve. Thus, hunting deer on our preserves is a strategy that can reduce threats related to over-browsing and disease transmission.

1Information provided by Michigan State University Department of Fisheries and Wildlife
2Figures as of 12/31/2016

Hunting  on TNC Preserves by Permit Only

You must have a permit from the Conservancy to hunt at any of the available preserves listed below. In the Lower Peninsula, we currently allow hunting on seven preserves. All Lower Peninsula preserves are at capacity; however, we do maintain a waiting list for each preserve. In the Upper Peninsula, we have more capacity and currently allow hunting at eight preserves and three reserves.

There is a fee to hunt at our Lower Peninsula preserves, excluding Grass Bay Preserve. Currently, there is no fee to hunt at our Upper Peninsula preserves. All Lower Peninsula permit fees are per person at the following rates:

  • Archery Season Only – Adult: $100.00; Minor: $80.00
  • Firearm Season Only – Adult: $100.00; Minor: $80.00
  • Combined Seasons – Adult: $200.00; Minor: $160.00

Permits are renewed annually if the hunter has complied with the program guidelines and at the discretion of The Nature Conservancy. Hunters removed are replaced with interested hunters from the waiting list in the order they were added. Spots are available on a first come, first serve basis at preserves with openings.

Please refer to the table below to see which preserves allow hunting. The deadline for obtaining a 2021 Hunting Permit is July 1, 2021. If you are interested in hunting white-tailed deer on TNC preserves in 2021, please call 517-316-0300 ext. 8 or email michiganhunting@tnc.org.

*Bow hunting only
**No TNC-issued permit required
• Preserves at capacity
Lower Peninsula Upper Peninsula
Grand River Fen Preserve •  Carl A. Gerstacker Preserve at Dudley Bay 
Ives Road Fen Preserve •  Haunted Forest Preserve 
Nan Weston Preserve at Sharon Hollow* •  Helmut and Candis Stern Preserve at Mt. Baldy 
Paw Paw Prairie Fen Preserve •  Laughing Whitefish Lake Preserve
Ross Coastal Plain Marsh Preserve •  Lon Matthews Reserve at Mulligan Creek Highlands**
Squaw Bay Preserve • Mary MacDonald Preserve at Horseshoe Harbor 
Grass Bay Preserve •  Maxton Plains Preserve
  McMahon Lake Preserve
  Raptor's Roost Reserve**
  Swamp Lake Preserve
  Two Hearted River Forest Reserve**
  Wilderness Lakes Reserve**

Hunting on Reserves

The Nature Conservancy has three Upper Peninsula properties enrolled as Commercial Forest Lands in the State of Michigan. On these properties, TNC employs a conservation strategy that includes sustainable timber harvesting to demonstrate managing forests in a way that promotes ecological values and reaps direct economic benefits. The Commercial Forest Act provides public access for hunting and fishing, but does not allow motor vehicle access, camping, tree cutting, structures or other related activities. TNC's hunting guidelines also apply to these properties.

Lon Matthews Reserve at Mulligan Creek Highlands - Marquette County

Raptor’s Roost Reserve - Marquette County

Two Hearted River Forest Reserve - Luce County 

Wilderness Lakes Reserve - Baraga County