Is Hunter Density as Bad as We Think?

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Is Hunter Density as Bad as We Think?

     When discussing hunter density, it’s important to note that statistics don’t tell the whole story.  For example, hunter numbers could be in decline at the same time that private land access is dwindling.  This could disproportionately push more hunters to public lands while overall numbers continue to experience attrition.  Likewise, the diversity of the data collection methodology employed by different state agencies can make comparisons difficult at best.  Sometimes one state agency is collecting and reporting different or more granular data than another, and thus some generalizations or assumptions need to be made in order to convert the data so that it can be compared.  I will do my best to describe my methods and logic and I will provide the links to the data I used for this article.

The QDMA Numbers

     The QDMA has released hunter density numbers by state in the past.  For the sake of a clear and concise article, they utilize the total area of a state divided by license holders within that state.  The QDMA’s numbers do not take into account individual state’s licensing procedures, nor do they factor actual participation rates.  If 1 out of 10 license holders doesn’t enter the woods in the fall, they haven’t technically contributed to any pressure or “felt” hunter density.  Additionally, some states may sell general hunting licenses which come with deer hunting privileges.  They also come with small game hunting privileges, and so small game hunters may end up being counted as participating deer hunters, even if they don’t pick up a rifle or a bow to pursue whitetails.

     The QDMA’s numbers are a simple, high level overview of hunter density numbers across the country.  But they really only tell part of the story.  A well known hunter has gone on record, (on numerous occasion), disputing those density numbers, particularly for the state of Michigan.  Much of the state is underwater, and one argument is that water area should be excluded.  I agree, although marshlands and swamps can still hold deer.  The claim was made that Michigan is the most heavily bow hunted state in the Union, and I decided to try to find out.

Michigan by the Numbers

     The following is very important, so read carefully.  Michigan sold 634,021 deer licenses in 2016, however, based on surveys of licensed hunters, the DNR found that the actual hunter participation number was only 554,143.  In other words, about 80,000 licensed hunters stayed home, or 12.6%.  Michigan sells a “deer license” which can be used with any weapon, the exception to this being early and late anterless season tags.  They do not have a specific archery privilege tag.  Based on the Michigan DNR’s survey, they found that 322,353 license holders bowhunted in 2016.  Michigan’s total land mass is 56,614 square miles.  On average, the deer hunter density, based on participating hunters, is 9.79 hunters per square mile.  322,353 archers in the state put the bowhunter density at 5.69 hunters per square mile.  The state has 4.5 million acres of public lands with a deer population of 1.75 million.  Average deer density in the state comes out to 30.12 deer per square mile.  Obviously there is some variation to these numbers depending on the area, but we will get to some of that in a bit.

Here are the quick stats on Michigan:

Deer License Holders: 634,021

Participating Deer Hunters: 554,143

Participating Archers: 322,353

Land Mass: 56,614 square miles (Lower Peninsula=40,162 square miles, Upper Peninsula=16,452 square miles)

Hunters per square mile: 9.79

Bowhunters Per Square Mile: 5.69

Public: 4.5 million acres

Deer Herd: 1.75 million

Deer Density Average: 30.91

Pennsylvania by the Numbers

     Data for Pennsylvania’s actual hunter participation rates was not readily available, so to control for a potential over calculation of participating hunters, I’ve applied a 12.6% correction (same as Michigan) to the total license holder number to get an estimated participant figure.  So, of Pennsylvania’s 914,244 general license holders, we will estimate that 12.6% elected to not participate in deer season.  This brings the number to of active deer hunters in PA to 799,049.  Archery license sales totaled 341,637 in 2016, so corrected for non-participation, the active bowhunters would be 298,590.  Pennsylvania has 44,817 square miles of land mass.  799,049 deer hunters spread over this area gives you a hunter density of 17.83 deer hunters per square mile!  However, it is important to note that small game hunters in Pennsylvania purchase the same general hunting license as deer hunters, even if they don’t deer hunt.  It is hard to know what proportion of license holders “plan” to deer hunt, but since we don’t have that data, we can instead use the Pennsylvania Game Commisions estimated number of deer hunters that participated in the opening day of firearm season.  That number is 550,000.  550,000 hunters across 44,817 square miles still equates to a density of 12.27 hunters per square mile!  It’s worth noting that a certain portion of the 59,550 bowhunters who harvested a buck during archery season would not be participating in opening day.  Other archers may take still take to the field in order to fill an antlerless permit, depending on their Wildlife Manage Unit. Speaking of bowhunters, an even distribution of participating archers gives you an average of 6.66 bowhunters per square mile in the Keystone State.  Pennsyvlania hunters can take advantage of approximately 4 million acres of public land and the state supports a deer herd of around 1.3-1.5 million, resulting in an average deer density of approximately 31.24 deer per square mile.

Here are PA’s quick stats:

 License Holders: 914,244

*Participating Deer Hunters (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 799,049

Opening Day of Firearm Participation: 550,000 (PGC Stats)

Participating Archers (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 298,590

Land Mass: 44,817 square miles

Participating hunters per square mile: 17.83

Opening Day Firearm Hunters per square mile:12.27

Bowhunters Per Square Mile: 6.662

Public: 4.0 million acres

Deer Herd: 1.3-1.5 million

Deer Density Average: 31.23

New York by the Numbers

     We’ll apply the same logic for hunter participation rates to New York as we did PA.  Using the Michigan participation ratio, we find that of New York’s 569,247 license holders, we can expect 497,522 to participate in deer season.  Out of 175,461 archers in the Empire State, adjusted for non-participation, 153,352 will actually spend time pursuing whitetail deer.  New York has a land mass of 47,126 square miles.  The average density, (adjusted for participation), of deer hunters across the state is 10.56 per square mile.  153,352 archers distributed evenly equates to a density of 3.25 bowhunters per square mile.  New York has a population of approximately 1 million whitetail deer, giving it an average deer density of 21.22 deer per square mile.  Interestingly, the New York DEC also notes that of the state’s half million deer hunters, 90% will hunt on private lands.  Private lands make up 85% of the state.  This means that ten percent of hunters in the state chase deer on the near 4.5 million acres of public lands available.  It also means that the average hunter density on New York public land is lower than the overall average hunter density across the state.  Before you get too exercised, it’s important to note that New York public land is widely diverse and receives unequal amounts of pressure.  The remote portions of the Adirondacks have significantly lower deer and hunter densities, much like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Counties within the southwestern portion of the state readily lead in deer harvest numbers, yearling buck exploitation and hunter density.  All this tells us that both public and private pressure is not evenly distributed across the state, and it is important to acknowledge that fact.

Here are New York’s quick stats:

 Deer License Holders: 569,247

Participating Deer Hunters: 497,522

Participating Archers: 153,352

Land Mass: 47,126 square miles

*Participating Hunters per square mile (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 10.56

Participating Archers Per Square Mile (adjusted by 12.6% factor): 3.25

Public: 4.5 million acres

Deer Herd: 1.0 million

Deer Density Average: 21.22

The Breakdown

     So, is the hunter density as bad as we think it is in this infamous three state “pressure trifecta”?  That is for you to decide.  Which one of these states is the “toughest” to hunt?  That question can’t be answered with statistics, either.  Topographical features and habitat play a roll in the hunting opportunities an area can provide.  Which of these three states is the most heavily bowhunted?  Well, unfortunately that depends on how you slice it as well.  You see, on average, Pennsylvania ranks the highest of the three with 6.662 bowhunters per square mile, besting Michigan’s 5.67.  However, the Michigan DNR has gone out of their way to provide us with more detailed statistics as to how many bowhunters spend time hunting in the Lower Peninsula.  The total they came up with is 315,105.  The lower peninsula of Michigan is 40,162 square miles, which means that the bowhunter density in the LP can be calculated as 315,105 hunters/40,162 square miles=7.85 bowhunters per square mile!  This certainly makes a strong case that Michigan deserves a spot near the top of the high pressure list.  But then, how would Pennsylvania’s or New York’s regional stats change is you started to break out lower hunter density areas?

     The truth is, you can slice up statistics to show you what you want to see.  Parts of every state have a certain amount of high pressure.  Without defining the parameters of your argument, and the methods of your calculations, it becomes really easy to claim one state is more highly pressured than another.  Hunting deer in Michigan is tough, I’ve done it before.  How about hunting in PA or New York?  Yea, I’ve been there too, it’s not easy.  In any of these states you are going to have to put in your time, scout hard, go where others won’t, find overlooked spots and just keep-on-keeping-on.  On any given day any of these states could be the king of high pressure hunting; and if you are putting down deer in any one of them, walk tall, because you’ve undoubtedly earned it.

Data Compilations:

-By Reuben Dourte



*This article originally written for and appeared on

Feature Image Credit: Tim Bunao