Growers in the prime fruit-growing area surrounding Grand Traverse Bay in northwest Michigan are protesting the conversion of their orchards into prime hunting ground for deer hunters wanting to shoot bucks with ­bigger antlers.

The state’s Department of Natural Resources approved a hunter-requested program called the Quality Deer Management Program for Leelanau County in 2003, and now the department is considering expanding it to 12 more counties. Under the program, it takes three antler points on a side to qualify the deer as a legal buck.

Growers have grudgingly tolerated browsing damage on their cherry and apple trees for many years, fending deer off with soaps, perfumes, dryer sheets, spray-on repellents, little bags of tankage tied to the trees, and special permits to kill unwanted deer.

But the emerging problem is buck rubs, as large male deer rub their trophy antlers and peel the bark from larger trees during the rutting period in the fall. Damage can kill trees.

The growers wanted to confront the DNR, so a panel discussion on the matter was to be held during the Northwest Michigan Orchard and Vineyard Show. Three young growers were there to explain the program to a representative of the DNR, but the DNR person didn’t show up to face them and the large audience.

Ben LaCross, a second-generation farmer, his wife, Kelsey, their two young children, and Ben’s parents grow tart cherries, sweet cherries, and plums on 700 acres, primarily in Leelanau County, near Traverse City. They also own and operate Leelanau Fruit Company, which processes cherries, plums, strawberries, and peaches. Ben and Kelsey also operate a 40-acre apple orchard.

In 2011, LaCross was elected chair of the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee.

“We warehouse the state’s animals for 11 months of the year for the benefit of recreational users and hunters,” he said. “Are we a big buck region or a fruit region?”

In his view, one possible solution would be for the state to pay fruit growers so they can fence their land.

Greg Shooks, a farmer in Antrim County on the east side of the bay across from LaCross on the west side, questioned whether growers wanted their area to become, like Georgia or Wyoming, a haven for trophy bucks.

While DNR issues permits that allow orchard owners to kill deer that are damaging orchards, Shooks is reluctant to see deer treated as “woods rats,” to be shot and abandoned. But it’s hard to find shooters who want to kill does in summer and pack out the meat in hot weather, he said.

Isaiah Wunsch, who farms with his parents, Joshua and Barb, on the Old Mission Peninsula in the center of the bay, said he doesn’t think recreational use and orchard use are compatible uses.

Dr. Duke Elsner, who is the Michigan State University viticulture specialist in Grand Traverse County, said large bucks have been tearing bird netting off vines and eating the grapes.

From the audience, Isaiah’s dad asked what they intended to do about it—beyond “playing the violins and having a pity party.” Josh Wunsch, a long-time Farm Bureau member who retired from the state board a year ago, is a veteran of policy fights in Michigan’s deer wars. Fifteen years ago, when recreational deer baiting and feeding was associated with an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis carried in the deer herd, baiting and feeding was banned for a few years, but has been reinstated. Part of the state’s livestock industry is still under federal quarantine because of the threat of TB.

The state’s Farm Bureau members seem divided between those who’d like to see the deer herd dramatically reduced and those who want farmers to be able to sell cull apples, carrots, and sugar beets to deer baiters.

On its Web site, the DNR says it only considers Quality Deer Management ­Programs where they are requested by sponsoring organizations willing to cooperate in studies on the effects of the programs, and with approval of a two-thirds majority of both landowners and hunters.

The state has never supported an industry based on harvest and sale of wild venison, as is done in some other countries. There is a growing industry in Michigan based on raised deer, but these need to be cordoned off with high fences.

Recent state policy has also been “shoot on sight” to control the small but growing population of feral hogs. But in Michigan, wild whitetail deer are for hunting and viewing—even as they cost lives and $130 million in car-deer accidents each year. There were 53,592 deer-car collisions in 2010, in which eight people were killed and 1,464 injured, according to the Michigan Deer Crash Coalition.

The state owns about 4 million acres of land that is open to hunters, but these lands are not as productive as farmlands, which is where the food is.

The DNR is pondering expanding the Quality Deer Management area and will decide in a couple of months.