Deer Management In Wisconsin: A Complex Challenge

Wisconsin Whitetail Doe and FawnTalking about deer management in Wisconsin is like talking politics at the company Christmas party. It leads to disagreements and a lot of eye rolling and head shaking. I’m about to write something that is going to be very, very controversial. I think the Wisconsin DNR is doing the right thing when it comes to deer management. When I say “is” I am referring to the 2009 season parameters. We don’t need a 16 day season and we certainly don’t need Earn-A-Buck(EAB) regulations in the northern part of the state. EAB and a ban on baiting is a good idea in the CWD zones.

Wait a second… I just said a bad word. CWD is just shy of the four letter variety. But saying “CWD” turns as many heads in a Wisconsin tavern as your favorite off-color term during Sunday service. Chronic Wasting Disease is a neurological disease occurring in deer and elk that is very similar to Mad Cow Disease. CWD attacks the brain, eventually leading to severe weight loss, or wasting, and then death. The animal literally loses it’s ability to eat and escape predators. CWD is thought to be spread through urine, feces, or saliva. When you talk about herd animals, those three elements are sure to intermingle from individual to individual.

Although Chronic Wasting Disease has never been found to spread to humans, hunting in the CWD Zone has a nasty stigma to it. When speaking with Up North hunters about our deer camp, most of the time they turn up their nose like they just caught a whiff of road-kill skunk. It’s funny that you never get that reaction when talking about hunting in Wyoming or Colorado. CWD was detected in those states nearly 40 years ago.

CWD was discovered in Wisconsin in 2001. The panic created by the DNR’s reaction has put Southern Wisconsin is disfavor among deer hunting diehards despite a population high in numbers of deer and quality bucks. This stigma has damaged the future of hunting in Wisconsin in a couple of ways. First off, people are not as excited about hunting in the area because the CWD cloud is always hanging over them. Fear diminishes the DNR’s greatest management tool, the hunter. Secondly, when people pass up hunting opportunities in the southern part of the state, they are abandoning what could be the best hunting in the state for what appears to be slower hunting in the north. In today’s action oriented world telling a kid to sit in a tree all day without seeing a deer is going to sour that kid on hunting in a hurry. In many cases that same kid could be presiding over a corn field loaded with deer in the southern half of the state.

Granted the key reason for most hunters to head north is access to land. If you don’t own land or know someone who will allow you to hunt on their land, the pickings are slimmer in the southern part of the state. There are vast tracts of federal, state, and county lands in the north… but according to many of the hunters I talk to, no deer.

A nice WI whitetail buck harvested during bow seasonCWD and land access are certainly important elements in the Wisconsin’s deer management equation but they are not alone. Hunter expectations are through the roof. How many times do you hear the senior member of your hunting party remarking about the good ol’ days? I’m here to tell you those days are not as long ago as you think. In 1910, one in 22 tags were filled. That’s less than a 5% success rate. In 1930, the success rate was just under 25%. In 1960, probably the days grandpa is referring to, it was just over 15%. In 1980, more liberal regulations gave hunters the opportunity to shoot a deer of any sex after nearly 30 years of buck only regulations. The success rate… just over 20%. Compare that to 2000 when nearly 700,000 tags were sold and the state saw a record deer harvest of nearly 530,000 deer. For those of you scoring at home, the success rate was over 75%. The next time an old timer starts talking about the good ol’ days, tell him you remember well.

The year 2000 also saw incredibly liberal seasons. The DNR claimed deer populations were through the roof and many hunters saw this as an opportunity to stock the freezer. Shooting another deer for Uncle Larry was encouraged. Less than a year and a half later, Wisconsin’s first confirmed case of CWD was reported leading to even more expanded seasons, more tags issued, and Earn-A-Buck regulations. The rest of the decade saw more wide open seasons and more huge harvest numbers with kill to tag percentages hovering around 60%.

Bountiful harvest numbers led us to where we are now. In 2008, the total harvest was less than 300,000 deer for the first time since 1997. Dissatisfied hunters began to let their voices be heard. This year things got worse. The gun deer harvest was down nearly 30% from the 2008 numbers. The drop off existed in every county in the state. Some counties recorded harvest numbers around 60% less than the year before. This was to be expected as season structures changed in much of the state which left fewer tags in the hands of hunters compared to years past. However, many hunters in northern areas said they didn’t even see a deer. While all of this was happening, the DNR talked about expanding the gun deer season from 9 days to 16. This idea has been shelved for the time being.

Of course, all of the factors I’ve discussed so far are man-made. Cold winters over the past few years have declined the herd as well. There are reports of bears preying on fawns. The DNR has responded by offering more kill tags to bear hunters. The most popular scapegoat in Wisconsin is the wolf. The timber wolf population and it’s range is growing in Wisconsin. While attempts have been made to take Wisconsin’s wolf population off the endangered list, lawsuits have been successful in relisting them. The DNR believes there are currently over 600 wolves in Wisconsin in about 150 packs. Some have estimated wolf predation to account for as many as 25,000 deer kills a year in the state.

While we can’t do anything about wolves at this time, the DNR is finally responding to what hunters want. The 16 day season proposal is dead. Population goals are being raised in many zones and Earn-A-Buck only exists in the CWD Management Zone. Yes, numbers were down this year but I believe those numbers are probably due to several factors including over-harvest. As more deer are taken to get the state “closer to goal” populations shrink leaving less deer. Our current situation was inevitable. As the Natural Resources Board and the DNR look at hunter surveys and other information, they have to decide what the future of deer hunting will look like in Wisconsin.

If we truly are closer to goal, our future season structures may end up looking much like 2009. Despite the disgust, that may not be a bad thing. With tags harder to come by in the north, populations should bounce back. This is especially true if we get a mild winter. In the southern part of the state, game managers are still asking hunters to bag more deer in an effort to thin the herd. Agriculture provides a more stable food source to these deer. With no established bear or wolf population in this area, hunters are the only viable predators.

In the CWD Management Zone, we are required to shoot an antlerless deer before shooting a buck. From what I witnessed at local check-in stations, many hunters took advantage of the October antlerless season and bow season to bag their antlerless deer and were hunting for bucks only during the traditional gun season. In some counties, the buck harvest numbers didn’t drop as much as doe harvest numbers. This could be a reflection of that strategy.

One thing is certain, hunters are becoming proactive. As more calls are taken in state legislator’s offices, the pressure increases to raise goals. The task at hand for the DNR is to balance the challenge of CWD with the wants of hunters, farmers, environmentalists, and auto insurance companies.


Meet Chris Larsen:

Meet Chris Larsen - Foremost Media Pro Staff MemberChris Larsen is an outdoor writer and television producer residing in St. Croix County, Wisconsin. Chris started his career as a sports anchor for WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. He then took his talents to a major Wisconsin company as radio and television talent. After a brief stint in the family business, Chris returned to television work. He now produces Foremost Outdoor TV, a regional program highlighting the outdoor lifestyle in the Upper Midwest.   Learn More About Chris Larsen