BELDING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Thousands of hunters will trek into Michigan woods and fields Friday as firearms deer season opens.

The season runs through Nov. 30.

Chronic wasting disease continues to be monitored by the Department of Natural Resources. Check stations are set up around the state for hunters.

“We’re making an extensive effort to make it reasonable and not too much of a burden on hunters to get their deer tested so we can get an idea of where the disease is, what the prevalence rate is of the disease of the herd,” DNR Wildlife Biologist John Niewoonder told News 8. 

Last year, the DNR found the most cases in Montcalm County.

“Unfortunately, the largest number of positive number of deer come from Montcalm County and second would be Kent County, so it’s pretty prevalent in these areas,” Niewoonder explained. “It’s still at or around 1% of the deer as far as we can tell, so it’s still, even in those more prevalent counties, still pretty low number, pretty low percentage.”

A new antler point restriction in Montcalm, Mecosta and Ionia counties is part of a multi-year study that will analyze a possible correlation between CWD prevalence and specific restrictions.

For the first time, hunters in those counties can only shoot bucks with at least four points on one antler. A 6-point that has three on each side is not legal. 

The DNR’s annual forecast says overall deer numbers are low in the Upper Peninsula and buck sightings have been limited.

Buck numbers appear on the upswing in the northern Lower Peninsula. They are abundant in many parts of southern Michigan, where bachelor herds have been spotted.

Baiting and feeding deer remain illegal in the Lower Peninsula and parts of the Upper Peninsula, a policy meant to prevent spread of chronic wasting disease. The legislature has approved bills to lift the ban, but another round of voting is needed before going to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Overall, more than 602,000 deer licenses were purchased in 2018: a 3% drop from 2017 and 18% decrease since 2008.

“A lot of young people are doing other things,” Niewoonder told News 8, explaining the drop.

It’s a problem because hunting and fishing licenses are the main source of income for the state’s conservation agency.

“It has affected us already,” Niewoonder said. “We have a little trouble with our budgets at times. We can’t always buy the equipment we need. We can’t always hire the staff that we need.

“Hunters pay the burden of conservation in Michigan,” he added.

Even with the recent drop in license sales numbers, the Blinker’s Diner Buck Pole near Bangor saw many hunters on opening day. The Romano family had four generations on hand for the occasion.

Vince Romano III thinks bait bans and other DNR policies are responsible for the drop.

“They’re over-regulating the state into oblivion,” he said. “They’re killing the sport and a lot of people I know refuse to buy a license here to fund them.”

Other hunters agreed with Niewoonder that it’s the result of younger generations not becoming as involved in hunting.

“A few people that have dropped out of it for age,” hunter Mike Shaffer said. “The younger generation is just not interested.”

—News 8’s Kyle Mitchell contributed to this report.