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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin's Deer Herd Faces Mounting Challenges

Few Wisconsin hunters noticed they had one less opportunity to share their thoughts on deer hunting and deer management this spring.


That’s probably not surprising, given how few of them participated the past eight years in the state’s County Deer Advisory Council meetings. The Department of Natural Resources launched this statewide citizen-input process in 2014 to fuel Wisconsin’s new age of ballot-box deer management.


Since then, the DNR held two rounds of CDAC meetings each spring. The first round, held in late March in each county, featured education-and-planning sessions to gather and share information about the local herd.


In theory, citizen-hunters would start by studying their county’s “deer metrics,” which are posted online by DNR foresters and wildlife managers (https://apps.dnr.wi.gov/deermetrics/LaunchPage.aspx). Hunters could immerse themselves in their county’s historical harvests, herd-population data, winter-severity index, health and disease information, crop-damage details, motor-vehicle collisions, and forest/woodlands regeneration.


Next, they could balance all that science with personal observations about their “back 40,” and offer CDAC members their conclusions. Wisconsin’s 71 CDACS would then draft plans for the fall hunts by setting harvest goals for antlerless deer. They’d also decide how many antlerless-only permits to sell or give away, and determine whether their county needed antlerless-only seasons in December and January to reach their harvest goals.


By 2022, however, it was clear scant few hunters glanced at the DNR data. And unless a county council recommended the “nuclear option” — antlerless-only hunts throughout fall — few hunters quibbled with their plans.


“Based on the online activity and the input CDACs heard, we realized one meeting will get us to the same place,” said Jeff Pritzl, the DNR’s deer program specialist. “Most people don’t do the homework. They don’t comment on deer goals from a (county) perspective. They look at it from the backyard they hunt.”


Therefore, the DNR dropped the first meeting and began this year’s CDAC process April 8 by posting an online survey. Hunters have until April 16 to take the survey on the DNR’s “County Deer Advisory Councils” website (https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/Hunt/cdac).


All counties will then hold an in-person meeting between April 24 and May 4 to make their fall-hunt recommendations. Attendees can also watch, listen and participate online. Hit this link (https://widnr.widen.net/s/tvvqtpn8kx/statewidecdacmeetings) for the time and place of each county’s meeting.


Larry Gohlke, a Marquette County CDAC member, worries that one meeting removes a key component of policymaking.


“We can no longer fire a warning shot to get everyone’s attention,” Gohlke said. “Every time we propose a holiday-season hunt (Dec. 24 to Jan. 1) to reduce (Marquette County’s) herd, snowmobilers show up at the second meeting to oppose it, even though we seldom get snow here before January. Other counties got everyone’s attention by voting for antlerless-only hunts all fall. Few people attended the first meeting to hear why their CDAC voted for it, but they sure showed up at the second meeting to oppose it.”


The September-January antlerless-only season isn’t an option this year, Pritzl said, but not because the deer herd is smaller. In fact, the statewide herd hit a record-high estimate of 2.05 million in 2022, said Dan Storm, the DNR’s research scientist. Storm said the herd is especially large in the “central farmlands” zone, which stretches from Polk to La Crosse counties on Wisconsin’s western border, and across to Lake Michigan from Door to Sheboygan counties.


Storm, however, fears far northwestern counties will lose many deer born last year because deep snow and cold temperatures stretched into April. Even before a winter storm struck there April 1, the DNR’s winter severity index rated Polk, Vilas, Washburn and Ashland counties as “severe,” and Iron, Sawyer, Bayfield and Douglas counties as “very severe.”


“We’ll lose a fair number of deer in those counties,” Storm said. “I doubt the losses will match what we saw in the 2013-14 winter, but it will be close in Iron, Sawyer, Bayfield and Douglas.”


Northcentral and northeastern counties, however, experienced mild to moderate winters.


Storm also worries that Wisconsin’s dwindling hunting population has lost much of its punch. The state sold 694,712 gun-deer licenses in 2000, but only 554,898 in 2022, a 20% decline. The last time gun-license sales were similar was 1974, with 556,815 sales.


“We lost another 10,000 hunters last fall, and we lost 10,000 hunters in 2021, too,” Storm said. “We’ll never again see the buck harvests of our record years (171,753 in 2000, and 171,891 in 1995) because we have (140,000) fewer hunters now. Plus, our hunting population’s biggest age groups are in their 60s. They don’t shoot as many deer as they once did.”


One man who has long warned hunters about such challenges is Alma’s Mark Noll, a Buffalo County farmer who served 39 years on the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. The WCC is a citizens advisory group to the Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy.


Noll often criticizes the NRB and Legislature for offering ineffective deer-management options. For instance, few hunters shoot more than one or two antlerless deer annually, so handing out three or more free “doe tags” doesn’t boost the kill. Also, lawmakers in 2011 passed laws forbidding earn-a-buck rules and firearms deer hunting before late November’s gun season.


“Deer eat our crops and overbrowse our woods, but we’d have a hard time reducing the herd even if we hunted year-round,” Noll said. “We can’t grow oaks anymore. Deer eat them as soon as they sprout.


“And now we have (chronic wasting disease) in Buffalo County, but hunters won’t talk about that, either,” Noll continued. “They love old bucks with big antlers, but CWD is like Dutch Elm disease. You’ll still have enough deer to destroy your crops and seedlings, but just when bucks get old enough to grow big antlers, they’ll catch CWD and die within 18 months. With Buffalo County’s large herd and rich soils, CWD will sweep through fast.”


Noll, 71, thinks his views cost him his WCC seat during a public meeting April 3, when hunters voted him out, 55-52, electing newcomer Don Baloun to replace him.


“It probably didn’t help that I pushed for the antlerless-only season in 2019 before they forced us to back off,” Noll said. “I don’t regret it. We chose the only effective option the NRB and Legislature offered. So, I’ll be staying home to spend more time with my wife. Maybe someone else can figure out how to manage a publicly owned deer herd living on land that’s 95% privately owned.”

Wisconsin Gun-Deer Licenses

Year Licenses Year Licenses Year Licenses

2022 554,898 2017 589,658 2005 641,771

2021 564,440 2016 599,856 2000 694,712

2020 569,203 2015 613,177 1995 684,944

2019 564,664 2014 609,816 1990 699,275

2018 576,277 2013 634,655 1974 556,815

Even though Wisconsin’s deer herd has reached a record 2.05 million statewide, a 20% decline in hunters the past 20 years ensures the state won’t reach its record buck kills of 171,000-plus in 1995 and 2000. — Patrick Durkin photo

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