SUTTONS BAY — Don Gregory has farmed his family’s fruit orchards in Leelanau County for four decades, and he's quite familiar with the challenge of keeping deer away from his prized cherries.
This year the fight is different, he said. And tougher.
Large bucks, he said, increasingly are rubbing their antlers against his cherry trees, stripping the bark and killing the stock. It's a natural act called a “buck rub,” or “deer rub,” and it’s a concern for Gregory and other fruit farmers in a county where cherry trees are as important to the economy as cars are to Detroit.
“On one day we found seven trees damaged,” Gregory said. “In the past, we haven’t had anywhere near this type of problem.”
Some agricultural leaders suspect Leelanau County’s designation as a Quality Deer Management site -- an effort to protect young male deer from hunting until they approach trophy size -- plays a role in the tree damage trend. A decade-old restriction dictates hunters in Leelanau cannot shoot a buck unless it has three points, or tines, on one side of its antlers.
The provision is designed to allow bucks to grow to trophy status as they roam the county's woods, swamps and fruit orchards, a plus for hunters, but not so much for some farmers.
"We think it's about three percent of the trees (that are lost,)" said Don Coe, a managing partner at Black Star Farms and a member of the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and Rural Development.
A preliminary study by the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station estimates deer-related damage costs Leelanau farmers $6,145 per acre.
The antler point restriction clearly is popular with hunters, so much so that they are lobbying the state to mandate antler point restrictions in 12 other counties, including Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grant Traverse, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Missaukee, Mason, Osceola, and Wexford.
The Michigan Natural Resources Commission will take public comment on the proposal in May. A vote is expected in June.
Not everyone agrees that the antler point restriction is to blame for deer damage to crops. Some fruit farmers, many of them hunters, support the program to protect young bucks.
"We agree that some farmers may be seeing a higher level of rub damage ... but I don't necessarily believe it's because there's a higher amount of bigger bucks out there," said Ryan Ratajczak, a leader of the Quality Deer Management Association's northwest Michigan chapter, which advocates for the antler point restriction with the Leelanau Whitetail Association.
"We've had three easy winters in a row and the deer herd is growing," Ratajczak said.
Ratajczak said he's sympathetic to farmers' concerns.
"Fencing is the best option from a deterrent standpoint," he said. "However, it's not necessarily cost effective ... we want to work with the farmers in order to reduce the population so that it's acceptable to hunters and farmers."
For Gregory, fencing is extremely expensive. He also sees a middle ground on the issue and would like to see a boost to hunting license fees to offset the cost to growers.
"I keep hoping there's a way to deal with this without fencing," Gregory said. "This is a man-made problem. Why, with this being a man-made problem, do (fruit growers) end up being the losers?"