By Zachary Sheldon, Upper Midwestern States Coordinator, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation
This October, the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation hosted the 14th Annual National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses Sportsman-Legislator Summit in Traverse City, Michigan. After a week of hosting a conference, and all the work that entails, there was no way we were leaving Michigan without taking advantage of some of the best woodcock and grouse hunting opportunities in the nation. With only one day free to get outside, we wanted to make sure we were hitting some good spots and making effective use of our time. Fortunately for us, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had already done all the legwork for us through their Grouse Enhanced Management Sites (GEMS).
GEMS is a recent program by the Michigan DNR started as a result of an increase in hunting license fees in 2014. After the increase, the DNR wanted to ensure that hunters were getting the maximum return on their dollars. The GEMS program came from the wish to provide more to hunters. The DNR knew that Michigan had great habitat, but often hunters don’t know where to go. Inspired by the state’s ‘America’s Summer Golf Capital’ guide, which provides a list of must-see golf courses for enthusiasts in Michigan, the DNR wanted to create a similar system of ‘must-hunt’ sites in Michigan that would encourage hunters to try new locations as well as help new hunters find where to get started.
To achieve this goal, the DNR started intensively managing sites to provide unique, walk-in hunting opportunities for ruffed grouse and woodcock. They hoped to promote hunter recruitment and retention, as well as aid local communities through increased tourism by hunters and facilitate timber harvest opportunities. The program is an innovative partnership between the DNR and local businesses. The DNR kicked off the GEMS program in 2014 with seven sites supported by 23 businesses. Sponsors for each GEMS site help pay for the printed materials and marketing for the site, while some businesses provide discounts or deals to hunters who travel out to the site. In return, those businesses get marketing exposure through the DNR website. In 2017, the GEMS program is now at 18 sites supported by 52 businesses.
To help hunters find these GEMS, the DNR launched a website that provides maps and location information on each site. The website includes interactive maps of each GEMS site that allows users to view street maps and get directions, view the topography, timber types, and age of the trees, and even notes nearby recreational facilities such as forest campgrounds, trails, wildlife areas, and boat launches. In addition, hunters can find local restaurants, accommodations and sporting goods stores. All this information makes it easy for any hunter, including nonresidents, to plan a successful upland hunt to Michigan.
Using the DNR’s website, we decided to hunt the Little Betsie GEMS site, not far outside Traverse City. After looking at the different kinds of cover on the DNR’s website, we were able to draw up a rough idea of where we wanted to go in the 4,000+ acre public site. At the entrance to Little Betsie was a large informational kiosk. It contained a map of the site, information on the local wildlife, a comment and suggestion box, information on nearby attractions, and listed sponsoring businesses all neatly arranged alongside artwork of grouse, woodcock, white-tailed deer and other Michigan wildlife in their native habitat. We went for a hike through prime grouse habitat, and while we managed to flush several birds even without dogs, our shooting left a lot to be desired, and there are still plenty of birds to be harvested at Little Betsie. And while any day out in the woods with friends is a success, we were able to find success later on that day by using the DNR’s MI-Hunt tool, which helped us find additional public land nearby to hunt.
Hunter participation rates have been steadily declining over the past few decades. A lack of access to huntable lands is the most commonly cited reason for hunters giving up their outdoor pursuits. Innovative and successful programs that partner hunters and the state natural resource agency with local businesses, like the Michigan DNR’s GEMS, are incredibly important as our community works to reverse this decline. The GEMS program is a great way to preserve our heritage so that future generations can share the transformative experience of enjoying a brisk hunt through the Michigan aspens for the elusive grouse.
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