Deer Season Means Big Bucks, Long Traditions in Michigan

Hunters will pour more than $500 million into the state economy during the next two weeks.

In Detroit, autoworkers leave their assembly lines. In northern Michigan, many schools close for the day. Throughout the region, gas stations, convenience and hardware stores stock up on orange camouflage, kerosene, and unusual quantities of beets.

Nov. 15 is the opening of deer season - the two weeks each year that transform small towns in the upper Midwest into havens for thousands of hunters in fluorescent suits.

An estimated 750,000 hunters - the most on record - will head into the trees for two weeks of backwoods bonding. Despite attempts by antihunting activists to put restrictions on the sport, hunting here is bigger than ever. In the culture of the Michigan woods, hunting is rarely even criticized.

During the season, hunters will pour $500 million into the state's economy. There will also be plenty of adjustments to make on the shop floor and in classrooms.

Those schools that don't close on opening day allow excused absences for students who show a valid hunting license.

Ford Motor Co. plant managers meet with United Auto Workers representatives two months in advance to plan November vacations. Temporary employees are hired to fill in for hunter-autoworkers.

Stores in some towns begin to look like they are sandbagged against a rising river, as 25-pound plastic bags of deer bait - carrots, feed corn and sugar beets - are piled outside.

For safety reasons, rural residents keep their dogs close to home and avoid walks and cross-country skiing in the woods.

Hunters say tradition and male family members play a major part in perpetuating the popularity of deer season.

"My dad hunted, my grandpa hunted, and the kids in our house were raised on venison," says Tim Grimm, a Harbor Springs area assessor. "When you go out there you are trying to recreate memories as much as anything else."

For Jim Ramer, a Harbor Springs attorney who goes to an Upper Peninsula camp founded in 1934, deer season isn't just about hunting. It's about good food; telling stories; and pouring over the camp's old photo albums and journals.

"Reading the journals of these people, you realize they laughed about the same things and told the same stories," Ramer says. "Deer camp ties you to the past."

A lesser-known deer-season tradition takes place back home. For the women gathered at Sally's Hairstyling in Onaway, Mich., it means shopping season.

"It's time for the wives to pamper themselves because their husbands are out playing," says salon owner Sally Kolasa. "I'm going to a hair show in Grand Rapids, and some of the wives are going to the malls in Traverse City to do some Christmas shopping."

The continued popularity of deer hunting is also due to the rise in the number of deer. The state's herd is at an all-time high of 1.8 million, up from only 800,000 in 1963. The main reason for the increase is improved habitat. Much of the state's second-growth forest has reached maturity. And in southern Michigan, as more people have gotten out of farming, old fields have grown into ideal grasslands.

Deer season also means money. Just under half of the $500 million deer hunters will spend this year will go for food, lodging, transportation, and other related expenses.

The state will pocket $16.6 million in license fees. Nationwide, the 11 million big-game hunters spent about $16.9 billion in 1996.

AS Michigan hunters head out to their deer blinds, they will be walking on firm political ground. Recent public hearings and ballot initiatives that could have placed new restrictions on hunters resulted in overwhelming reinforcement of the status quo.

Both the 1996 ballot initiatives and a series of public hearings in 1995 revolved around the controversy of hunting over bait piles. But after much public debate, the state has left the rules alone.

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