Hunting Aims for a Comeback in Locked-Down Michigan

Wall Street Journal:

The state has seen a 67% increase in new hunters prowling the forests this year—me among them.

By forcing most businesses to close, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made shooting your meat one of the few productive things a person out of work could do.

Contrary to the impression of hunting and hunters held by most city dwellers, the person who straps a rifle to his shoulder and heads off into the woods in search of game is often a sort of conservationist.

Arm braced against a fallen tree to steady my father’s rifle, I watched the buck step into my sights and, heart hammering, squeezed the trigger. It was the first shot I’d ever taken at a deer. But I wasn’t the only nervous novice in the Michigan woods this month. After more than 20 years of decline, the state has seen a 67% increase in new hunters so far this year, despite—or perhaps because of—the Covid-19 lockdown.

The fall and rise of hunting in the Great Lakes State mirrors a nationwide pattern. The practice has been deeply ingrained in America’s pioneering culture since the Plymouth Colony’s 1623 mandate that hunting, fishing and fowling be open to everyone. In England, by contrast, game was long considered the property of the well-to-do. In the Upper Midwest, some schools close on the first day of firearm deer season.

The number of hunters has been falling nationally since the 1980s, with some variation between states. The rise of the suburbs and the revival of the American city during the 1990s and 2000s contributed to the hollowing out of rural traditions like killing and preparing your own meat. The cultural decay was exacerbated in Michigan by a general population decline from 2000 to 2010.

Across the U.S., the average age of hunters has risen, as younger generations have turned away from the sport. “Hunting, and to some degree fishing, has been relegated to ‘an old white guy thing,’ ” says Matt Dunfee of the Wildlife Management Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit. “There hasn’t been a cultural bridge between generations.”

Covid turned things upside down. Where cities drew Americans away from the wilderness, lockdowns—which were particularly harsh in Michigan—left few other places for recreation. The same trend played out nationally, even for those who started this pandemic year living far from field and stream. Shelter-in-place orders and urban rioting drove people out of the sprawl and into places like rural Michigan.

By one count, the state had the highest net in-migration in the country, and the less-populated northern areas saw a particularly large influx. Here in Emmet County, average home sale prices between July and the end of November rose by more than $150,000 between 2019 and 2020, as newly arrived buyers bid up high-end properties. Ninety minutes south in Traverse City, most builders are booked two years in advance.

Lockdowns have also restored some of hunting’s economic value. Though it became a popular sport in the 19th century, hunting entered American culture as an economic necessity. At the start of the deer and bird seasons in September, Michigan’s jobless rate was 8.6%. It has since rebounded to 5.5%, still well above February’s prepandemic rate of 3.6%. By forcing most businesses to close, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made shooting your meat one of the few productive things a person out of work could do.

Even remote workers have more free time, and hunting is a socially distanced activity that ends with a relatively cheap meal. My family gets more than 100 individual meals out of each deer my father shoots, and the rough price per meal—counting the cost of the license, ammunition and butchering—is about $4.

The pandemic also spurred some regulatory smoothing that made it easier to get a hunting license. New hunters like me would normally need a weekend of field training, but this year I was required only to take a quick online course—with the promise that I’d complete an in-person day within a year.

Perhaps most important, the pandemic indirectly reinforced the backbone of U.S. hunting culture: family tradition. More than fishing, hunting is handed down. My father taught me to shoot, and my great-grandfather and great-uncles taught him. This month I followed my dad through the forest he hunts each year, his rifle in my hands. Without relatives or friends serving as mentors, it’s difficult to get into hunting. Figuring out how to get a gun, where you can legally hunt, how to shoot, and how to clean an animal is daunting. This is a major barrier to many would-be hunters, according to Mr. Dunfee.

Contrary to the impression of hunting and hunters held by most city dwellers, the person who straps a rifle to his shoulder and heads off into the woods in search of game is often a sort of conservationist. Talk about organic, free-range meat. A deer goes where it wants, and a quick shot is more merciful than a slow, messy death. There are few activities more connected to nature. My dad chooses where to hunt by the wind’s direction and quietly points out signs of deer as we walk—the crushed brush and the sapling trunks that have been stripped of bark by bucks rubbing the velvet off their antlers.

Michigan’s stringent lockdowns created an opportunity for families to pass their hunting traditions down to the next generation. In the spring, it was illegal to socialize outside your household. Families were forced to spend time together and many decided to get outdoors and hunt. “Definitely an uptick this year with fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, moms and sons, moms and daughters coming in and getting into the sport,” said Bill Freet of the Shooters Range in Traverse City. The number of new hunters under 17 was up by about 96% as of Nov. 17 compared with last year.

It’s too early to say whether the pandemic has permanently reversed hunting’s decline. I plan to be back in the woods next fall with my own gun, and—further down the road—to pass down what my father has taught me. In the meantime, I have a fridge full of venison.

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