BY JON KING, MICHIGAN ADVANCE
Despite an ongoing trend in Michigan of fewer people heading into deer blinds, the amount of venison being donated to local food banks and other charities has been steadily increasing.
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 2022 Deer Harvest Survey, the total number of hunters declined by about 4% from 537,014 in 2021 to 516,336 last year. More significantly, the number of deer that were harvested dropped 14%, from approximately 395,000 in 2021 to just 339,189 in 2022.
In and of itself, that is not much of a surprise, as deer hunting, in general, has been steadily declining in Michigan over the last several decades. While 2020 saw a small increase largely attributed to the expanded interest in outdoor activities during the first year of the COVID pandemic, the annual deer harvest still pales in comparison to the peak seen in the late 1990s, when just under 600,000 deer were taken.
What is somewhat surprising is that over that same period, Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger (MSAH) reports an inverse increase in donated deer meat.
Dean Hall is treasurer of the MSAH, an all-volunteer organization that connects hunters, wild-game processors and charities that feed individuals in need.
“Hunting license sales have indeed not enjoyed the amount of sales numbers as in past decades,” Hall told the Michigan Advance. However, he added that their tracking “shows increases in venison burger production as a result of deer donations.”
According to numbers provided by the group, while the number of deer harvested in Michigan dropped 14% from 2021 to 2022, the pounds of donated venison that were processed through their network rose by nearly 6%, from 107,012 pounds to 113,491 pounds.
In fact, while the number of deer hunters has been on the overall decline, MSAH reports a more than five-fold increase in donated venison over the past ten years, with more than 1.1 million pounds collected and donated between 1991 and 2022.
Hall said the increase in donated venison has several contributing factors.
“While sportsmen and sportswomen continue to support the MSAH mission in strength, additional deer donations come in from post season deer management efforts in the MetroPark System, city parks and townships where hunting is not allowed but deer management is a necessity, and deer management in specific counties of the State through the United States Wildlife Service,” he said.
MSAH is funded through an account in the state Treasury and promoted by the DNR as the “perfect way for hunters to share their harvest,” while they are encouraged to “offset the cost of processing, and packaging venison by making a monetary donation” when they purchase a hunting or fishing license.
According to the Michigan Wildlife Council, those monetary donations have also increased exponentially, from less than $1,000 in 2005 to approximately $100,000 in 2018.
Meanwhile, state wildlife officials say that while they encourage the continued donations by deer hunters, they also caution that only licensed processors like those utilized by MSAH should be used by those looking to purchase venison.
“Many people assume food items sold online are from licensed and inspected companies, but this is not always the case,” said Jennifer Bonsky, MDARD Food and Dairy Division acting director. “Before you buy any food, and at this time of year particularly venison, make sure the food was processed at a facility licensed by MDARD. Our staff works tirelessly to make sure businesses are following the law to keep your food safe and family healthy.”
Legally, hunters can only take their deer to an unlicensed meat processor if the venison is simply cut and wrapped, although that meat must be marked as “Not for Sale” and used for personal use/consumption by the hunter. While it can be shared with the hunter’s friends and family, it can not be resold. If further processing like grinding with added fat, sausage making, or smoking is needed, the processor must be licensed.
“The best way to tell if venison being offered for sale is being sold legally is to look at the label,” said Bonsky. “A proper label will list ingredients, weight of the product, the name, address and contact of the licensed food business, and have a best by date, if needed. You can also ask to see a copy of the seller’s food license.”
As for the long-term trend of the decline in hunting across Michigan, there are actually small signs of optimism, said Nick Buggia, chair of the Michigan Wildlife Council.
“According to statistics just released by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, hunting license sales are generally holding steady compared with recent years — even increasing among some demographics — and that bodes well for all Michiganders,” he said.
While hunting license purchases were down slightly, a .79% decrease from the 459,490 bought in 2022, the purchase of first-time hunting licenses saw a .86% increase.
There was also a 3% upward swing from 2022 in the number of hunting licenses purchased by out-of-state visitors through Oct. 31.
That bodes well for the efforts of Michigan Sportsmen Against Hunger.
“Michigan hunters for decades have been donating venison to the hungry of our state,” Buggia said. “It’s just one of the ways sportsmen and sportswomen give back to their neighbors and fellow citizens.”
This coverage was republished from Michigan Advance pursuant to a Creative Commons license.
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