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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin's 2019 Gun Deer Season Fits Past Patterns

No one should be shocked that Wisconsin’s nine-day gun season generated a statewide deer kill – 167,693, including 76,760 bucks – that resembled harvests from the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan eras.

For the historically challenged, that means 1979, when gun-hunters registered 76,550 bucks; and 1981, when the combined harvest of bucks, does and fawns was 166,673.

We should also note those preliminary 2019 totals from the Nov. 23 to Dec. 1 gun season were achieved with far fewer hunters. Consider: Wisconsin sold 564,664 gun-deer licenses by Dec. 1 this year, which is 52,445 fewer tags (-8.5%) than sold in 1979 (617,109), and 64,370 fewer tags (-10.2%) than sold in 1981 (629,034).

In other words, we killed roughly the same number of deer during the November 2019 gun season as we did during Novembers 40 years ago, but with roughly 9% fewer hunters. That suggests two possibilities: Today’s deer hunters are more skilled than our counterparts four decades ago, or we’re hunting a larger deer herd than was present in 1980.

Personally, I think the latter – more deer – better explains things. Scientific preseason estimates put Wisconsin’s deer herd at a record 2 million this year. No, not 2 million on your 80-acre pine plantation; 2 million deer across a 41.92-million-acre state.

The herd’s size shouldn’t shock anyone, either, given that we haven’t shot enough female deer in recent years to reduce the herd, and we certainly didn’t curb it in late November by removing only 90,933 does and fawns. In fact, harvest histories show that roughly 25% of the antlerless kill (22,733) was buck fawns, which means gun-hunters removed 90,493 males and 77,200 females this year. You can’t control deer herds by shooting 18% more bucks than does.

Even so, I think our 1980 counterparts also hunted harder than we do. Few used bait, few had Taj Mahal heated blinds, many hunted after opening weekend, many moved around after the first two hours on opening day, and many joined their neighbors to drive deer.

In contrast, most 2019 hunters move less than a nine-hole golfer, few hunt after noon Sunday on opening weekend, and few talk to neighboring hunters except to accuse them of shooting “their buck” or crowding their fence line.

In addition, gun-hunting opportunities were cut the past decade. We no longer have a four-day October gun-hunt, which killed 66,437 deer in 2000 even though it was neither statewide nor subject to earn-a-buck restrictions. And until 2014, Wisconsin didn’t restrict hunters to specific counties for antlerless hunting, or make them choose public- or private-land tags. The Natural Resources Board also eliminated gun-buck hunting in December, further dampening overall interest.

And scoff all you want, but when gun season opens Nov. 23 – its latest possible opener –hunting success declines. That fact is consistent and clear when comparing harvest figures compiled by the Department of Natural Resources in an annual booklet titled “Big Game Harvest Summary.”

I started collecting those annual deer-kill reports in 1989. Since then, Wisconsin has had six Nov. 23 openers one year after a Nov. 17 or 18 opener (the earliest possible dates). Those occurrences were 1990-1991, 1995-1996, 2001-2002, 2007-2008, 2012-2013, and 2018-2019.

In all six cases, the buck kill suffered a five-figure drop from the early opener to the late opener. This year’s nine-day gun-season buck kill declined a record 27.6% from 2018 (106,038 to 76,760), but the buck kill also declined …

-- 21.3% from 2007 to 2008 (124,895 to 98,304),

-- 19.6% from 1995 to 1996 (171,891 to 138,254),

-- 14.7% from 1990 to 1991 (140,726 to 120,009),

-- 14.5% from 2012 to 2013 (112,521 to 96,172),

-- 13.3% from 2001 to 2002 (140,632 to 121,959).

The best chance to break that chain was 2002, but that’s when Wisconsin learned it had chronic wasting disease, and we lost 69,595 hunters (-10%) to CWD hysteria that year. Those who hunted achieved a decent harvest despite little snow cover statewide on opening weekend, and sub-zero temperatures in the North.

This year we had snow across far northern Wisconsin on opening weekend, and nice weather statewide. Still, the rut was over, and deer moved little on their own in daylight. Any chance of compensating for the opener’s low kill got washed or whited out statewide by heavy rains and snows the second weekend.

Maybe that’s why post-gun-season belly-aching hasn’t been all that loud. Jeff Pritzl, the DNR’s wildlife district supervisor in Green Bay, noticed a lack of negative feedback, too.

“I’ve had many more hunters acknowledge that deer simply weren’t moving during daylight during the nine-day season,” Pritzl said. “I take that to mean more hunters understand that seeing deer isn’t always directly correlated with deer abundance. Trail cameras and the ease of monitoring them remotely seems to be influencing that change in thinking. A lot of them shared stories of noticeable drop-offs in daytime pictures even a week before gun season.”

The archery season corroborates deer abundance. As of Dec. 13, the combined buck kill for crossbows and regular archery gear was 52,476, which is 10% higher (4,844) than the total buck kill for the entire 2018 season (47,632).

More specifically, compound-bow hunters registered 23,602 bucks by Dec. 13, up 8% from 21,676 in 2018; and crossbow hunters had registered a record 28,874 bucks, up 11% from 25,956 in 2018.

The deer are out there, folks. If that’s not true where you hunt in Wisconsin, consider these radical suggestions: Abandon your dead zone and hunt them where they live until bow season closes Jan. 5.

If you hung no deer from your buck pole during Wisconsin's gun season in late November, maybe you need to move your stand to a woods with more deer. -- Patrick Durkin photo

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