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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wis. Board Picks Barstool Biology Over Elk Science

The Natural Resources Board once again ignored recommendations from a citizen-focused advisory team by voting 5-2 at its May 27 meeting to reject a six-bull quota and instead issue 10 bull tags for this year’s elk hunt in northern Wisconsin.

That marks the third straight year for 10 bull-elk tags, five of which go to the state’s Ojibwa tribes. The Department of Natural Resources also issued four tags to state hunters and one to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which awards it to a lucky hunter in a lottery fundraiser.

The DNR recommended a six-bull quota after Wisconsin’s 20-member elk advisory team endorsed it during a teleconference March 18. The team consists of agency biologists, and representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation, Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, Jackson County Forestry and Parks, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, rejected the proposal while offering few justifications but vague allegiances to “other factions” who want more elk tags.

The decision resembled a reversal in early October when the Board forced the DNR to jilt its Sept. 3 agreement with the Chippewa Valley CWD advisory team, which would have required hunters to test deer taken around Eau Claire County for chronic wasting disease. The Board never explained its U-turn to voluntary testing, even though the citizens team had met publicly seven times in 2019 to weigh its options and win support from local hunters, farmers and landowners.

During the Board’s May 27 meeting, DNR biologist Bob Nack said a six-bull quota would help balance the herd’s age composition and bull-cow ratios, and boost mature bull numbers. When older bulls dominate breeding, more cows get bred during their first estrous cycle in early autumn, which ensures most calves are born from late May to early June. That “swamping” ensures more newborn calves survive predation by bears and wolves when they’re most vulnerable, and grow to larger sizes by December to meet winter’s challenges.

When younger bulls dominate breeding, pregnancies are more random and spread out, causing calves to arrive as late as September. That leaves them more susceptible to predators at birth, and to harsh winters because they’re smaller and less hardy.

The DNR and the elk team also hoped a six-bull quota would ensure more older bulls in the years ahead, which tourists like to view and hunters like to target.

Predictably, when DNR biologists write a deer or elk plan, Board vice-chair Greg Kazmierski of Pewaukee opposes it. In prefacing his demand for a 10-bull quota, Kaz said, “I did a little research on this, and having grown up on a farm and being familiar with herd animals …” He then rambled into a tortured review of bull-cow ratios and elk survival rates elsewhere.

Kaz didn’t elaborate or provide PDF files to explain how his boyhood work with 1960s farm animals informs his knowledge of 2020 elk dynamics. He did, however, provide PDFs of his “research,” which included a state-by-state preview of North America’s 2009 elk seasons. The 11-year-old forecast showed bull-cow ratios ranged from 1:2 to 1:5 for elk herds numbering from 10,000 in Kentucky to 280,000 in Colorado.

Kaz apparently thinks those figures discredit the DNR’s recommended 1:1 to 1:2 bull-cow ratios for a herd numbering 300, roughly 33 times smaller than Kentucky’s and 933 times smaller than Colorado’s.

Kaz also provided a PDF file of a study reporting 98% adult-elk survival rates at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in south-central New Mexico. One assumes he shared it to question the 80% adult-survival rate he reported for Wisconsin’s northern elk herd. Kaz somehow overlooked that elk south of Albuquerque don’t live in mature boreal forests, or spend winter dodging wolves and logging trucks while plowing through 3-foot snow cover.

No matter. Kaz’s corkscrew reasoning persuaded four other Board members to support his 10-bull quota, which he said provides more “return on investment” for hunters.

Board members Bill Smith of Shell Lake and Marcy West of La Farge opposed the majority, sticking with scientific explanations in an accompanying DNR report: “The elk advisory committee and DNR anticipate this quota level will be the lowest quota moving forward. Another 10-bull harvest would likely result in a quota level of even less than six bulls in 2021.”

Board member Terry Hilgenberg of Shawano wasn’t convinced. He ridiculed the agency’s population projections for the Northern herd, which predict 116 bulls in 2028, up 45% from the current 80-bull estimate. Hilgenberg and Kaz were especially agitated by the projected worst-case scenario, 47 bulls; and best-case scenario, 206.

“If that’s the best science we have, that’s bad science because that’s such a huge range,” Hilgenberg said. “You couldn’t operate any business predicated on that type of information. … It’s almost worthless.”

Speaking of rubbish, when Hilgenberg later ripped the DNR’s response to COVID-19 shutdowns, he said: “When are we going to get our over-2,000 employees back to full-time work? This extended furlough with full pay is not in the best interest of our responsibility to … managing our natural resources in Wisconsin.”

Note to Mr. Hilgenberg: The DNR did not furlough anyone during the shutdown. Agency staff worked from home on much the same projects as always, and met Gov. Evers’ directive to cut appropriations by 5% with $1.49 million in reductions.

Meanwhile, back at May’s meeting, Board member Julie Anderson of Sturtevant blamed “the media” for “playing” the elk hunt as a scheme to sell lots of permits with “no one being able to harvest anything.”

She concluded: “We need to send a message to the public that if you're going to buy (applications) … and your name gets pulled, your chances get a little better with five (permits) than three. So I’m going to fully support the (increase). We need to fix this public relations issue.”

Problem solved! Please take note you 28,000 prospective elk hunters who recently paid $10 to apply for a tag: Anderson doubled your draw odds from 1 in 14,000 to 1 in 7,000.

I’m sure that brightens everyone’s image of the DNR.

The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy, overruled the agency’s attempt to reduce the bull-elk quota by four tags during its May 27 meeting.

— Shapshot Wisconsin/DNR photos

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1 Comment

Jun 16, 2020

Not surprised. Our NRB continues to rule by political persuasion. Reminds me of how they ignored science when closing down late season ruffed grouse hunting the past two seasons. It’s high time to re-write the NRB’s role and makeup.

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