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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Northwoods Deer Outnumber Bears, Wolves in Trailcam Survey

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Folks who scorn gray wolves often claim they see more of them than white-tailed deer when poking around Wisconsin’s Northwoods the past 20 years.


Meanwhile, trailcams are now as common as ravens and wood ticks in those forests, providing round-the-clock surveillance of bait piles, food plots and two-track trails. All that photographic evidence spawns countless claims and surplus exclamation points:


“We seldom see deer on our trailcams anymore, but we see plenty of wolves!! Last fall before gun season I didn’t find five sets of deer tracks in the snow, but I found lots of wolf tracks!! Wolf tracks in some spots on our logging road looked like cow paths!! That’s why there's no deer left in northern Wisconsin!!!!!”


Hey, every hunter throughout history wants more deer and deer sign. That includes me. While scouting my favorite sites in Ashland County two weeks ago I found no deer tracks or buck sign in three days. I’ve never had that happen in 20 years of hunting that part of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. Then again, I saw no wolf sign, either, which makes sense. Why would wolves waste their time and energy hunting such lousy deer habitat, especially after a scientifically documented “very severe” killer winter for whitetails?


As best I could tell, the one critter doing well up there is beavers. They’re toppling more poplars and damming more creeks and ponds than I’ve seen the past two decades. Once wolves target these surplus beavers, they’ll eat till they belch and bulge.


But one man’s observations don’t necessarily paint a picture. To learn what my fellow hunters and other folks are documenting in Ashland County, I looked up the “Snapshot Wisconsin Data Dashboard” (https://widnr-snapshotwisconsin.shinyapps.io/DataDashboard/). Snapshot Wisconsin is a popular citizen-science program that generates photo-driven data for the Department of Natural Resources. It relies on students, individuals and families to monitor trail cameras at assigned sites, and share everything with experts who identify and log what’s in the photos.


Snapshot Wisconsin’s current five-year data set covers January 2018 through December 2022. So, yes, those data won’t show what’s triggering trailcams this year. The numbers, however, make you question some folks’ claims about wolves overrunning the Northwoods.


In Ashland County, for instance, 30 trailcams in scientifically chosen sites took 23,299 deer photos from 2018 through 2022. Those same cameras also took 107 wolf photos and 713 bear photos. In other words, during those five years, Snapshot Wisconsin trailcams in Ashland County took 33 times more deer photos than bear photos, and 218 times more deer photos than wolf photos.


Yes, specific animals can appear in more than one photo, but do deer simply like getting their pictures taken more than bears or wolves? Let’s also concede those totals aren’t population estimates or definitive statements about each species’ county-wide prevalence.


But come on. When studying the data from 26 Northwoods counties from St. Croix to Oconto, not one county showed wolves, or even bears, coming close to equaling deer in Snapshot Wisconsin photos. From 2018 through 2022, the program’s 1,119 Northwoods cameras took 2.9 million deer photos, 36,324 bear photos and 6,803 wolf photos. In other words, for each wolf photo there were 5.3 bear photos and 426 deer photos. And for every bear photo there were 80 deer photos.


Snapshot Wisconsin also details how many animals show up on individual cameras. Of those same 1,119 Snapshot Wisconsin cameras mentioned earlier, only three failed to photograph a deer during that five-year period. That means 100% of the cameras in 23 counties snapped at least one deer photo. The rare failures were one camera each in Ashland, Langlade and Taylor counties.


In contrast, only one county—Iron—recorded a bear on every one of its 35 active cameras. The other 25 counties ranged from 57% to 97% of cameras taking bear photographs, with four counties above 90%: Washburn, 91%; Bayfield, 94%; Sawyer, 96%; and Burnett, 97%.


Not one Northwoods county, however, had wolves on every camera. On the low end were St. Croix County, where one of its 47 cameras (2%) photographed a wolf those years; and Dunn, where two of its 30 cameras (7%) captured a wolf image. The top-performing counties for wolf photos were Douglas, where 28 of 46 (61%) cameras photographed wolves; and Iron and Price, where 21 of 35 (63%) and 31 of 49 (63%) cameras, respectively, documented wolves.


Meanwhile, the top Northwoods counties for deer pictures were Marinette, 279,966 deer photos from 72 cameras; Bayfield, 264,420 deer photos from 62 cameras; and Marathon, 235,572 deer photos from 72 cameras.


The top counties for bear pictures were Sawyer, 4,765 bears from 57 cameras; Marinette, 4,075 bears from 72 cameras; and Price, 2,472 bears from 49 cameras.


The top counties for wolf pictures were Price, 1,510 wolves from 49 cameras; Douglas, 778 wolves from 46 cameras; and Sawyer, 742 wolves from 57 cameras.


Bear photos far outnumbered wolf photos in every county except Shawano, where its 30 cameras snapped 529 bear photos and 522 wolf photos. On the opposite extreme, St. Croix County’s 47 cameras captured 465 bear photos and only one wolf photo.


Now, if you dismiss all these data from Snapshot Wisconsin’s 2,000 volunteer-monitored cameras, here’s your chance to improve the program. The DNR is again searching for volunteers to “adopt” a trail camera. The agency has divided Wisconsin into 6,000 quarter-section monitoring sites, but currently has cameras in only 2,000 of them. That means you should be able to put a camera to work for science.


Simply contact the DNR to volunteer (https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Research/ApplyHostTrailCamera), and learn how you can help the agency fill in all the missing data on wolves, bears and whitetails. And while you’re at it, maybe you’ll get some great photos of other cool critters for Snapshot Wisconsin’s files, including bobcats, cottontails, coyotes, elk, fishers, opossums, pheasants, porcupines, raccoons, red fox, sandhill cranes, snowshoe hares, skunks, chipmunks, turkeys and woodchucks.


It's a fun program, and Wisconsin’s outdoors community will thank you for your help.

Photos taken in 26 Northern counties by Snapshot Wisconsin featured white-tailed deer 80 times more often than black bears and 426 times more often than gray wolves from 2018 through 2022. Snapshot Wisconsin photo

— Chart Compiled from Snapshot Wisconsin data.


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