It's no secret crossbows have become a pretty big deal in the archery world. A decade-long national trend toward the liberalization of crossbow-hunting regulations has resulted in an explosion of crossbow sales. In fact, it's probably safe to say crossbows and crossbow accessories are the industry's fastest-growing product segments.
Despite the industry's embrace of crossbows — and manufacturers certainly have a financial interest — a considerable amount of disagreement remains within the bowhunting community over whether crossbows belong in traditional "archery-only" hunting seasons. So every time a state wildlife agency considers the possibility of allowing crossbows in regular archery seasons, it sets off a firestorm of debate. By now we've seen the process play out in enough states to recall the predictable arguments from both sides.
Crossbow proponents tout the benefits crossbows offer in terms of helping younger hunters start hunting sooner and keeping older hunters hunting longer. They also say crossbows are a great way to attract firearms hunters to bowhunting — helping boost wildlife agency coffers in the process via an increase in archery license sales.
Crossbow opponents, meanwhile, invariably predict that allowing crossbows will result in a horde of marauding hunters rushing into the woods and killing every deer in sight. As a result, they say, archery seasons will have to be curtailed and the number of available deer tags will have to be significantly reduced. And besides, the antis contend, crossbows are just too easy to use. They don't require hours and hours of diligent practice to shoot accurately, so those who wield them shouldn't have the privilege of participating in archery seasons.
Given the amount of heated passion on both sides of the crossbow debate, I've always found it best to take the claims with a grain of salt, instead relying on hard data to evaluate the real impact crossbows are having on hunter participation and game populations. Along those lines, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources this week released its comprehensive Crossbow Deer Hunter Survey, which revealed a wealth of interesting information regarding crossbow use in The Wolverine State.
Michigan legalized crossbows for use during regular archery seasons in 2009, and the survey analyzed trends in crossbow use and harvest from 2009-2011. The state mailed surveys to a random sampling of 2,000 licensed crossbow hunters in the state, and results are based on the 1,475 responses received.
Among the key findings of the survey are:
- The number of licensed crossbow hunters in Michigan more than doubled from 56,915 in 2009 to 118,573 in 2011. In 2009, crossbow hunters comprised 19 percent of all Michigan archery hunters, and by 2011, they comprised 37 percent of all crossbow hunters.
- About 75 percent of crossbow hunters had participated in archery season in at least one of the previous three years, while the remaining 25 percent of crossbow hunters had not hunted during archery season in at least three years. About 19 percent of the licensed crossbow hunters in 2011 had never hunted with anything other than a firearm before.
- Between 2008 and 2011, the number of hunters participating in Michigan's archery season increased by 13 percent, while the total number of hunters participating in all deer-hunting seasons decreased 7 percent.
- The success rate for crossbow hunters remained relatively stable at roughly 37 percent during the three-year survey period. The number of deer taken by crossbow hunters was 24,882 in 2009, 38,310 in 2010 and 54,902 in 2011.
- Although the number of deer taken by crossbow hunters more than doubled during the survey period, the overall archery season harvest remained relatively flat, and the total deer harvest for all Michigan's seasons actually declined 13 percent.
- At least 77 percent of crossbow hunters agreed that, in comparison to other types of bows, crossbows were easier to use, took less time to become proficient, were more accurate and increased confidence.
- About 52 percent of crossbow hunters said the weapon increased how often they were able to hunt during archery season and 27 percent said the crossbow increased the number of deer they were able to kill during archery season.
- Generally speaking, Michigan crossbow hunters are older than average. The mean age of all licensed deer hunters in Michigan during the survey period was 42, while the mean age of crossbow stamp holders was 50.
In summary, the authors of Michigan's survey report concluded that the introduction of crossbows into the state's archery season succeeded in recruiting thousands of new archery-season participants and retaining many thousands more. However, introduction of crossbows has not reversed the long-term decline in Michigan's overall deer-hunter numbers.