There are more than 638,000 licensed deer hunters in Wisconsin, and most of them are hopping mad.
Preliminary harvest results from the state’s firearms deer season show the lowest kill (195,647) in 27 years, and down 29 percent from last year.
In a state once renowned for deer hunting success, some hunters now are reportedly so frustrated they may not buy a license next year. Failing to get a deer is one thing, and we’ve all dealt with it. But hunting the whole season and failing to see a deer is another.
Anecdotal evidence from a few unlucky hunters is not a sure indicator that the deer herd is devastated by any means. But drastic drops in the total harvest cannot be denied. And of course there are many other possible factors. Some of the many theories for the low harvest—and/or a dwindling deer population—include: warm weather during the deer season, standing corn, record snowfall and low fawn production the last couple of years, too many antlerless deer permits, and the ineffectiveness of Earn-A-Buck (which probably ought to be re-named, “How to Make Hunters Hate the DNR.”)
Fewer doe tags were issued this year and Earn-A-Buck was suspended in many areas. But many hunters feel those efforts were too little, too late.
Some residents are also pointing to the increasing number of wolves and coyotes in the state. NRA Field Representative Steve Taetsch owns 80 acres in northern Wisconsin and often lets foster parents and their kids hunt his property. The kids are now saying things like, “Gee, Mr. Taetsch, we didn’t see any deer, but we saw an awful lot of big dog tracks.” Taetsch and his wife got a long look at the “big dogs” when, for three days, they watched two wolves feast on a deer they’d taken down on the property.
Among the most vocal hunters calling for action was State Sen. Russ Decker (D-Weston) who went on the record as saying the whole deer management team needs to be replaced. “The DNR has become a master of excuses and hunters are sick of them. We need a management team who knows what they are doing and one that listens to hunters,” he said.
At the bottom of hunters’ frustration is the conviction by many that DNR simply does not have an accurate estimate of the state’s deer population—data fundamental to a deer management plan.
Asked about the state’s deer population estimates, Wisconsin DNR spokesperson Bob Manwell said, “We do feel we have a good model—maybe not an absolutely perfect model, but we are working toward implementing improvements. We do adjust seasons every year.
“We certainly do believe people when they tell us they’re not seeing as many deer,” Manwell continued. “Hunter input is invaluable to us. But deer populations in Wisconsin can take some big swings. And we have 130 Deer Management Units, each with a legislatively set population goal. In one-third of the state, deer populations are at or below those goals.”
A recent controversy over DNR’s deer management was their intention to expand the gun deer season from nine days to 16 in 2010. (Given this season’s low harvest, DNR has taken that idea off the table for now. Click here for more)
The 16-day proposal was developed as an alternative to the objections many hunters had to Earn-A-Buck. NRA and many sportsmen’s groups initially supported the expanded season, based on the deer population estimates provided, mainly because it would increase hunters’ opportunities.
But with the deer population now considered by many to be overestimated, the 16-day season does not appear to be good wildlife management. Commenting on the issue, NRA State Liason Jordan Austin said, “We are now retracting from our previous position of supporting the expanded hunt and looking to work with all the sportsmen’s groups to find a reasonable solution to helping the herd recover.”
On Dec. 17, the State Assembly Fish and Wildlife Committee and the Senate Transportation, Tourism, Forestry and Natural Resources Committee plan to hold a public hearing at the State Capitol on the deer hunt. Department of Natural Resources officials are scheduled to brief them on the hunt.
All things considered, Wisconsin might want to re-think this statement, which appears on their website: “Wisconsin is recognized as one of the premier deer hunting states in the nation as Wisconsin is home to a thriving deer herd.”
There is no doubt that statement was true once, but a lot of hunters up there are not buying it right now.