TYRONE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s not tough to spot where — or what — the problem is at the Rogue River State Game Area northeast of Kent City.
Just off 20 Mile Road west of Red Pine drive, the ground is covered with shell casings, homemade targets and trash.
“People show up to shoot, and they just leave what they shot up,” explained James Williams, who’s been target shooting at Rogue River for more than a decade.
“It’s crap. I hate this. I don’t know why people come out here and trash it. We took a week once and cleaned the place up. A week later, it was just as bad.”
Williams and his friend Nelson Bartrum said it’s become particularly bad — and at times dangerous — in the last year or two.
“It depends on how many people are here and what kind of skill level they have. If it gets kind of crazy, we leave. I’m not going to be here to watch someone get killed, or I could get shot. Forget it,” Williams said.
Bartrum said target shooting has always been banned at the particular site News 8 visited Monday.
“This bottom part here they’re not supposed to be shooting at … but nobody listened. Every time (the Department of Natural Resources) put signs up, people shoot them or take them down.”
Bartrum said his biggest concern is that someone will get hit.
“You’ve got people mushroom hunting in the summertime. You’ve got people hunting. And people are out here (target) shooting. You’ve got a lot of them that don’t know what they’re doing,” Bartrum said.
Bartrum recalled a time when he was particularly worried about an elderly man who often wandered in the area collecting used brass casings.
“I told the old man, ‘You shouldn’t be doing that,’ and he said, ‘I’m fine,’ and I said, ‘yeah, but you’re carrying an oxygen tank and rounds are being shot down there.”
The Department of Natural Resources is worried too.
On May 13th, DNR Director Daniel Eichinger signed a Land Use Order banning all target shooting at Rogue River State Game Area and the western portion of the Muskegon State Game Area.
“There’s a lot of people who (target shoot) safely,” explained John Niewoonder, a wildlife biologist with Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources.
“But there’s also quite a few people who do it unsafely … They’re shooting up the trees and shooting in unsafe directions without backgrounds, without backdrops, without berms, near areas that other people are accessing for other regular uses such as hiking, hunting, birdwatching and mushroom picking.”
Niewoonder said the areas used to be utilized primarily by hunters who were siting-in their rifles.
But in recent years, Niewoonder said that’s changed.
“Now increasingly, it’s folks who don’t appear to have an interest in hunting. They’re shooting air rifles, handguns.”
The increase in unsafe target shooting in state game areas coincides roughly with a significant uptick in firearms background checks for Michigan residents.
The FBI reports it conducted more than a million such record checks for Michigan in the year 2020.
That’s up from just over 492,000 in 2019.
“Apparently, a lot of new gun owners are out there,” Niewoonder said. “Maybe they are not as familiar with common sense when it comes to firearms. It’s kind of a new thing for us. We see more and more of this unsafe activity with guns.”
Niewoonder said the DNR has received myriad complaints from neighbors, hikers and local law enforcement.
“People talk about bullets flying over their heads. We’ve had people send us videos of themselves walking and describing how the shots are firing, and they can hear bullets tumbling over their heads. They feel very unsafe,” Niewoonder said.
Neiwoonder said DNR staff have found themselves in unsafe situations too, with bullets flying overhead.
While the wildlife biologist thinks the odds are not high that someone would get hit, he said the chance does exist.
“When you combine the safety issues with the trash and the abuse of the area and the destruction of the habitat, all of those things come together to lead us to make this move,” Niewoonder said.
Neiwoonder noted that the DNR generally supports target shooting in state game areas.
“We consider it a legitimate use of state land in some areas and we don’t want to come down on it, but in these two locations, as well as some others in the past, it’s just become too much and too concentrated,” Niewoonder said. “So, we don’t want to say (target shooting) is a bad thing, we just want to say that we can’t do it in these areas anymore because it’s become too much of a problem.”
Niewoonder said target shooters are bringing household items like televisions and propane tanks, shooting them up and then leaving them there.
News 8 told Williams and Bartrum about the ban. They were disappointed but not at all surprised.
“That’s been a long time coming,” Williams said.
“Look at that, that’s blatant disrespect,” Williams added, gesturing to the trash-strewn ground.
Williams said he’ll just drive a little further to shoot.
The Land Use Order noted that there are more than 20 shooting ranges within 30 miles of both the Rogue River and Muskegon State Game areas.
“You might have to pay a small membership fee, but they have high quality ranges. The memberships are not expensive and they have good shooting benches and good backgrounds and very safe opportunities,” Niewoonder said.
The DNR will put up signs announcing the bans at Rogue River and the impacted portion of the Muskegon State Game Area.
If DNR officers find people target shooting in violation of the ban, they will issue civil tickets and courts will assess fines.