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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

New Research: Wisconsin Deer Hunter Numbers Still Falling

Updated: Mar 28

   More females and crossbow hunters joined Wisconsin’s deer hunting’s ranks the past decade, but they didn’t halt the state’s nearly 20-year decline in hunter numbers and license sales.

   That’s one takeaway from a recent Department of Naturals Resources study by the agency’s science operations staff. The team studied 18 years of detailed license data gathered since 2005 by the agency’s high-tech ALiS licensing system. That software allows the DNR to precisely track and analyze the ages, gender, success rates, and license-buying patterns of hunters, anglers and trappers throughout their lifetimes.

   The analysis of all archery and firearms deer license data from 2005 through 2022 shows Wisconsin lost 65,000 deer hunters those years, a nearly 10% decline from roughly 672,000 hunters to about 607,000. Most of that decline, 51,000 deer hunters (78.5%), occurred since 2014.

   Dan Storm, the DNR’s chief deer researcher, said the study found hunter numbers declining across all ages. The problem isn’t unique to the huge baby-boomer generation (hunters born from 1946 to 1964, and currently ages 60 to 78) “aging out” of the hunting population.

   “There’s been this assumption that once baby boomers are gone, the hunting population would stabilize and find a new normal,” Storm said. “But this predictable loss of baby boomers is just one of many factors. It’s not the main cause. We’re also seeing declines in the number of boys and girls who hunt, probably because their middle-aged fathers aren’t hunting as much either.”

   Storm’s research team—which includes Christine Anhalt-Depies, Adam Mohr, Meghan Henry and Beth Wojcik—also found that roughly 5.5% of Wisconsin girls hunted deer in 2005. That percentage increased to 8.5% by 2015, but then slid back to 6% in 2022. In comparison, the data showed about 27% of Wisconsin boys hunted deer in 2005, but then their participation fell to 22% in 2015 and to 17% in 2022.

   Further, even though roughly half of boys and girls quit hunting soon after high school, boys are far more likely to resume hunting in their 20s. Their numbers peak in their 40s, but don’t plummet until reaching their 60s. In contrast, women aren’t as likely to resume hunting in their 20s. Those who do, however, don't stay long. They start departing for good in their mid- to late 20s.

   Participation rates also differ by weapon choice, with gun-only hunters plunging about 37% among males, from about 350,000 in 2005 to roughly 220,000 in 2022. In contrast, gun-only female hunters increased about 32% those years from roughly 40,000 in 2005 to about 53,000 in 2015 before declining 19% to about 43,000 in 2022 for an overall increase of roughly 7.5%.

   Meanwhile, participation rates for archery-only and combo (gun/archery) hunters increased from 2005 to 2022, but only modestly. And although crossbow hunting accelerated those rates when becoming legal for all ages in 2014, archery hunting also rose after 2005.

   “Crossbows might have helped reduce the overall decline in hunters, but that doesn’t mean it was simply a shift from gun-hunting to bowhunting,” Storm said. “Those numbers weren’t a wash; not by any means.”

   The license data, however, can’t answer why gun-only deer hunters declined faster than did the increase in archery-only and gun/archery deer hunters. Some combination of hunters probably chose to hunt earlier in fall in nicer weather with compound bows or crossbows, while others stuck with the colder, less-predictable nine-day gun season in late November.

   Further, gun-hunting opportunities declined nearly 30% the past 15 years while archery hunting opportunities increased nearly 10%, starting with a 2011 law that forbids firearms deer seasons before the traditional gun-hunt that starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

   From 1996 to 2010, Wisconsin often held four-day antlerless-only gun seasons in mid-October to help reduce deer numbers where herds far exceeded population goals. In addition, the Natural Resources Board—the seven-citizen, governor-appointed group that sets DNR policy—cut eight days from the holiday gun season during the 2012-2014 deer trustee process, while also changing that season to antlerless-only instead of either-sex.

   For comparison, in 2010 the archery season covered 104 days while the gun seasons totaled 44 days, including a four-day antlerless-only season in mid-October and a 17-day either-sex season from late December through early January. Since 2015, archery seasons have averaged 114 days and gun seasons 32 days. Counties offering extended archery-only hunts in January increase the gap.

   Wisconsin’s declining hunter numbers aren’t unique in whitetail country. The trends in Virginia and Pennsylvania, for example, closely resemble Wisconsin’s. From 2010 to 2020, Pennsylvania’s deer hunting population fell about 7% from roughly 910,000 to about 850,000, while Virginia’s fell about 13% from roughly 248,000 to 180,000.

   Even so, some Wisconsin hunters insist license sales would bounce back if we simply restored the overabundant deer herds of the 1990s. If that’s all it takes, why haven’t overabundant deer herds sustained Virginia and Pennsylvania’s hunter numbers? And why hasn’t small-game hunting in Wisconsin bounced back, given that rabbit squirrel, duck, goose and pheasant numbers are as good or better now than 20 years ago?

      Consider, too, that Wisconsin’s steepest deer hunting declines occurred since 2014, when the NRB and former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp launched Wisconsin’s “new era of deer hunting.” Even though the Legislature outlawed the controversial earn-a-buck regulations two years earlier, the move did nothing to retain hunters.

Making things more convenient didn’t help, either. Hunter numbers only plunged further once hunters could register deer with computers and smartphones instead of driving to distant registration stations.

   And thanks to the “deer trustee” process led by Texas biologist James Kroll, "new-era" hunters could also vote on county-by-county deer seasons, ignore antlerless quotas, and pretend chronic wasting disease isn’t gutting deer herds across southern Wisconsin.

   Nor did the Legislature alter history when it eliminated carcass tags, dropped hunting’s minimum age, discounted license prices for first-time hunters, and legalized blaze-pink for hunting clothes. Further, hunting’s participation boost during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic fizzled once normalcy returned in 2021.

   Meanwhile, fewer hunters means less license revenues for managing Wisconsin’s natural resources, and less control of deer herds that destroy crops and overbrowse habitats.

   Can a smaller hunting population pick up that slack? Recent history suggests no. Only about 12% of Wisconsin hunters in 2022 shot more than one deer, tying Indiana for eighth/ninth of 13 Midwestern states in that category, according to the National Deer Association.

   Did Kroll, the NRB and legislators cripple Wisconsin deer hunting?


Not necessarily, but the simple solutions and weak tweaks made by lawmakers and political appointees from 2011 to 2018 didn’t increase deer hunting’s fun factor or reverse its relentless declines in license sales.

Wisconsin’s deer hunting population continues to decline across all age groups after a decade of new laws and programs by lawmakers and political appointees.

— Cuddeback TrailCam photo

— Wisconsin DNR charts

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1 Comment

Mar 24

One thing that can be counted on, the Wisconsin state legislature will continue to raise non-resident license fees in a misguided attempt to make up revenue shortfalls.

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