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Pandemic Boredom Brings Michiganders Outdoors, But Is It Sustainable?

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

Hunting and fishing have trended up during the pandemic, but what happens next remains in flux.

The abundance of natural resources at the footsteps and fingertips of Michigan residents is massive, ranging from the lakes and streams to the forests.

According to a report from The Associated Press, numbers of hunters and anglers taking advantage of those resources have risen to new heights and made up for years of decline.

More than 545,000 hunters in Michigan had bought licenses through Nov. 11, 2020. That number is nearly 10 percent more than at the same point in 2019, according to the AP report and data from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). 

But will that number continue to go up?

“Whether the increases in outdoor participation seen over the past year or so will continue remains an open question,” said Michelle Zellar, a coordinator with the Michigan DNR. “Overall, the DNR plans to continue efforts to remain relevant to the changing needs of our outdoor recreation, history and natural resources constituency.” 

As stay-at-home orders were introduced during the pandemic, people were confined to their state lands and socially distanced outdoor activities such as golfing, fishing and even turkey and deer hunting. The spike in numbers can likely be directly attributed to people working from home and having more and more time on their hands as life was grinded to a slower pace. But some advocacy groups believe that it’s important to retain all those who returned to their tree stands and fishing spots during the pandemic’s longest time of lockdown.

“While we don’t really have any definite answer as to why hunting, new hunters especially, exploded (new license sales)…we can’t exactly know why (but) it’s pretty safe to assume it was because of stay-at-home orders,” said Nick Green, the public information officer for Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC). “It was because folks were allowed to go outside on their state land. If you remember back last April, a lot of things were closed, one of the things the governor frequently said during her conferences was, ‘OK, get outside on public land, go enjoy the outdoors with your family.’”

An important part of keeping the numbers up, both Zellar and Green said, is reaching demographics that aren’t taking as large of a part in the outdoors –young people and women.

Zellar, who heads the Michigan DNR’s “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” program, is hoping to do just that. BOW (Becoming an Outdoor Woman) was founded in the lower peninsula in 1994 and spread to the U.P. in 1997.

“We hope programs such as BOW will continue to educate and encourage women to confidently and safely engage in outdoor activities,” Zellar said. “In turn, we have faith our participants will continue to share their experiences with other women, introducing them to outdoor recreational opportunities.”

Green and Zellar both know that women and youth are the key to keeping people invested in Michigan’s natural resources – and always should’ve been. 

“Just talking about women, they are a demographic that has been traditionally underrepresented in hunting communities especially,” Green said. “I think when you look towards maybe my generation ... we see a different approach to hunting and angling and it's not what gender you are – it's kind of the motives and what influences you to do it.”

Kyla Miller, of Manistee County, Michigan, has been trying for years to help bring new people into the world of outdoor sports and guide others on hunting trips. She and her husband started a guide business together and, according to the Michigan DNR’s registered guide list, operate in six counties around west and northern Michigan. 

As a woman working in the outdoors field with her business, Two Ladies and Crew Guide Service, Miller has been trying for years to get it off the ground as someone who was introduced to fishing and hunting later in life. While doing so, she has run into her own issues while trying to get people involved in the outdoors.

“We’ve got (Miller and her husband) a lot of experience with turkey and deer hunting,” Miller said, “So we wanted to try do something different to help other people to do the same thing to go out and guide people to get their first turkey or deer.”

Miller said that, oftentimes, she was treated differently than others for wanting to get more involved with the outdoors – something she connects directly to being a woman. “It’s still very hard for women to fit in,” she said.

She noted, people she calls “old-timers” who are not open to new hunters and anglers, can cause issues for those trying to learn – such as teens, children or women. That is an issue she hopes that programs such as the DNR’s BOW can help mitigate and help maintain the rise in new hunters and anglers that was seen in 2020. 

“They don’t like it (veteran outdoorsman she’s seen),” Miller said. “They don’t like the early youth hunting season … they don't think it's fair and I’m all for it because if it gets them (youth) out and they like it then they have the opportunity to do it.”

With the business not kicking up as much as she anticipated when she began it a few years back, Miller said she and her husband will likely fold it when the calendar year is over without a significant increase in business.

She was once a new hunter, which is where the fate of rising numbers rests. Miller said youth and women need to be welcome into the community for the increases to continue.

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