Making Sense of the Dr. Kroll “Controversy”
By Chris Larsen
One of many promises made by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker during his 2010 campaign was to hire an outsider to look at the state’s coveted deer herd. Nearly a decade of management intended to reduce the deer herd had done the job. Hunters were not seeing the deer they were used to seeing and wanted the problem fixed. How can we get youth involved in deer hunting if we don’t ever see any deer? The idea of a state deer trustee was generally lauded. According to most deer hunters, the DNR had been messing things up for years. We needed change.
Almost immediately after taking the job, Walker went on the offensive against state labor unions. The actions set off a whirlwind of protests and political battles. Deer management issues weren’t making any headlines. Still, the plan to appoint a whitetail deer trustee was still on track. As the leaves began to fall in 2011, Walker announced the hiring of Dr. James Kroll. Kroll, also known as Dr. Deer, was soon dubbed the deer “czar” by those not happy with the hire. Czar sounds far more menacing than trustee.
Critics were concerned with Kroll’s connection to the deer farm industry. He is a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas but also does work as a consultant and outdoor television host. Dr. Kroll definitely has his hands in several aspects of the deer management business. But with 30 years of work in the field, it is hard to deny his expertise. Despite Kroll’s experience, he didn’t take on this immense consulting job himself. Drs. David Guynn and Gary Alt are also part of the project. Both men have worked in wildlife management at the state level for decades.
Other critics didn’t care who Kroll was. In a year that state budgets and jobs were on everyone’s mind, why was the state hiring an outsider to do this study? Why can’t we just hire someone from Wisconsin? Even worse, the price tag was $125,000. The fury reserved for the fight over collective bargaining began to creep into deer management issues. But the archery season was already underway and the gun season was right around the corner. Besides, some oversight might be a good thing.
The season came and went . Governor Walker’s opponents successfully delivered the petition signatures needed to force a recall election this summer. Things were looking up for them. Walker’s days in office appeared to be numbered. Kathleen Falk, Kathleen Vinehout, and a handful of other candidates toured the state in an attempt to gain favor among those desiring to oust the Governor. But the group wasn’t polling particularly well and Democrats worked to convince Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to enter the race. Barrett lost convincingly to Walker in 2010. But he seemed to have the best shot at sending Walker out of office.
Away from the election news, Dr. Kroll and his team presented their interim report. Deer hunters rejoiced. Finally, someone laid down the law on the DNR. Dr. Kroll questioned the Sex-Age-Kill(SAK) method of counting deer. Most Wisconsin deer hunters weren’t buying the DNR deer population counts. SAK’s shortcomings were no surprise to them. Other common criticisms confirmed by the report were an abundance of predators, baiting, and Earn-A-Buck regulations. Dr. Kroll travelled throughout the state in April to take questions about the study. Most comments were positive. Finally, someone was giving hunters a voice with the DNR.
But Kroll was not without his critics. Dan Schmidt of Deer & Deer Hunting is a Wisconsin resident whose passion for Wisconsin deer hunting can’t be questioned. Schmidt has been an outspoken critic of Kroll’s work as Wisconsin’s Deer Trustee. Kroll lives in the land of high fences and has a high fence hunting area of his own. While high fences are the norm in Texas and other places across the South, whitetail farms are taboo in Wisconsin, especially after the discovery of chronic wasting disease in our state.
Schmidt had some other issues with the report as well. But another portion of Schmidt’s blog has become a political firestorm. The blog referred to an article written back in 2002 in the magazine Texas Monthly. In the article, three lines have become highly controversial.
- “Game management is the last bastion of communism.”
- People who call for more public lands are "cocktail conservationists," he says, who are really pining for socialism.
- He calls national parks "wildlife ghettos" and flatly accuses the government of gross mismanagement.
The article was written in 2002 but hasn’t become part of the news cycle until now. These three lines have become a rally cry among Governor Walker’s opponents. Yet, they are an afterthought in the article. Kroll isn’t even introduced until the final paragraphs of the piece. The author isn’t a deer hunter and while he obviously thought the quotes were worthy of adding to the article, they weren’t headlines. The idea of hunting whitetails exclusively on private land was normal for readers of Texas Monthly. Only 3% of the state is publicly owned. Kroll recently addressed these quotes. To say the least, he's disappointed.
Wisconsin based freelance writer Patrick Durkin recently interviewed Kroll for an article in the Wisconsin State Journal. In the story, Kroll says Wisconsin and Texas are two different situations. What works in one place doesn’t fit in another. “I’m not bringing high fences and Texas deer management to Wisconsin, but Texas will never offer public hunting for all either,” said Kroll.
But aren’t these lines proof that Kroll is just part of a sinister plan to sell off DNR lands? 17% of Wisconsin is publicly owned and much of that land is open to hunters. We surely don’t want to lose that property. What if Walker, Kroll, and their “cronies” decide to sell state property? That scenario makes for interesting commercials. But the fact is they can’t. The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board(NRB) dictates land acquisitions. Four of the seven members of the NRB were appointed by former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle, a Democrat. What those commercials won’t tell you is Wisconsin is about to make the biggest recreational land purchase in state history, a 67,000+ acre tract in Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, and Washburn counties.
What about Wisconsin’s own biologists? Kroll’s critics will tell you Wisconsin’s biologists could do the job for less money. The state did their own audit back in 2000… for the modest price tag of $1,000,000. In other words, they took Kroll’s contract and added a zero. The sad thing is many of the recommendations from that study went ignored. This could be partly because of a change in administration, partly because of chronic wasting disease.
I have interviewed several DNR biologists and officials and believe they are more than capable of conducting sound research on whitetail deer. But how credible would a DNR deer management study conducted on themselves be? The same people constantly calling for government transparency apparently think that is a good idea.
If you disagree with Governor Walker’s stance on collective bargaining for state workers, by all means cast your ballot for Mayor Barrett. But the over-the-top conspiracy theories about privatizing the state’s deer herd are just that, over-the-top conspiracy theories. Well over 600,000 Wisconsinites hunt deer. With Barrett polling six to eight points behind Walker, scaring some of those deer hunters into voting for him may be his only shot at winning. It’s the classic October surprise. But in this era of accelerated election cycles, October comes early in 2012.
UPDATE(6/1/2012): The facebook page "Save Wisconsin Hunting" is actually a front for the website "The Daily Kos". This left wing website is based out of Berkeley, California. My question to Wisconsin's deer hunters is this: If you believe a whitetail biologist with over 30 years of work in the field is out to destroy hunting in Wisconsin, what do you think far left website editors in Berkeley, California want to do?