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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin’s New Age of Deer Hunting Brings Little Joy

   You might assume Wisconsin hunters were happy they shot a deer every other second during November’s nine-day gun season.


   Pfft! You’re wrong, of course.


   Hunters registered 85,773 bucks and 89,123 antlerless deer—does and fawns—during last month’s season, which offered roughly 10 hours of legal shooting daily. The season lasts 90 hours, or 5,400 minutes, or 324,000 seconds. So, yes, to kill those 174,896 deer during the Nov. 18-26 season, hunters shot just over a half-deer (0.54) per second.


   Despite such success during a warm, snow-free season statewide, many Wisconsin hunters continue their nearly 100-year-old grump-along. Are they just spoiled? After all, we registered 442,581 deer during November 2000’s nine-day season, which was 1.36 deer per second. We also shot 85,913 deer during special hunts in October and December 2000 for a state-record gun-kill of 528,494 deer that fall.


   But when all that shooting ended 23 years ago, the pity party rolled on. Only 28% of Wisconsin deer hunters rated the hunting quality as “high” in a postseason survey by the Department of Natural Resources. In fact, that survey of 10,000 hunters found 31% rated the season’s quality “low” and 41 rated it “average.”


   And you wonder why I say deer make people stupid?


   Nothing else impairs hunters and anglers so profoundly. When fish don’t bite, we switch baits, try a new spot or change tactics (trolling, jigging, bobbers, etc.). But what happens when deer don’t move past our heated, sliding-window blinds during the 15 hours (Saturday till noon Sunday) most folks hunt on opening weekend? We keep sitting as if vacuum-sealed, thumbing our smartphones and thumping the DNR on social media.


   Bears and turkeys don’t afflict us that way. For instance, the DNR announced Nov. 14 that the autumn’s bear kill was 2,922, a 29% drop of 1,188 bears from 4,110 in 2022. A DNR press release noted it was the lowest harvest since 2008 when hunters killed 2,955 bears. It’s also a 32% decline from the 4,296 average bear kill from 2010 to 2020.


   Why the decline? Randy Johnson, the DNR’s large-carnivore specialist, said this year’s acorn crop was “remarkably high.” Acorns apparently provided so much natural food that bears widely ignored bait piles placed by hunters. Therefore, hunting success fell to 23%, down from the 5-year average of 32%.


   Sure, some bear hunters accused the DNR of using acorns as an excuse, but their bellyaching didn’t drown out one cricket, let alone create a public nuisance.


   The DNR also heard few complaints in June after announcing a turkey kill of 43,439 during the spring’s six-week season. Then again, the kill rose 9% from 2022’s harvest of 39,007, and was 6% above the previous decade’s average.


   As you’ll read soon, deer hunters don’t fall for such happy data. They’d note the tricky DNR didn’t remind turkey hunters that last spring’s harvest was down 9,191 (17.5%) birds from the 2007-2009 average of 52,630 kills. The spring turkey kill hasn’t neared 50,000 ever since, averaging 41,375 the past decade.


   Deer hunters didn’t grant the DNR such grace when it announced Nov. 28 that the nine-day gun harvest fell 19% statewide from 2022. The DNR didn’t dare offer “excuses,” such as unusually warm weather and that huge acorn crop, which kept deer bedded within short walks of rumen-filling food 24-7. The agency simply noted declines of 14.7% for antlered bucks and 20.3% for does and fawns, with the biggest declines in the Northern Forest, where the total kill fell 30%.


   Let’s agree much of the Northwoods has held few deer since modern history’s harshest winter in 2013. We also note five Northern counties—Iron, Douglas, Bayfield, Sawyer and Ashland—suffered a harsh winter in 2022-23, which foretold 25% declines come deer season.


   And let’s further agree predators like bears and wolves can make it hard for deer herds to bounce back from killer winters. That’s especially true when deer habitat is poor, whether it’s mature forests with open understories that seldom see sunlight, or overbrowsed cover ravaged during previous deer-rich decades.


   But relatively few hunters today hunt the Northwoods’ deer, and don’t know white pine from white cedar or balsam fir from beaked hazelnut. They hunt the central and southern farmlands south of Highway 29, a region with woodlots long overbrowsed by overpopulated deer herds exploiting abundant crops.


   Many such folks expect deer hunting to mimic put-and-take pheasant hunting on game farms and public-hunting areas. They routinely trash “the government,” yet apparently expect government’s wildlife agencies to trot deer past their sealed huts after sending text alerts when to look up from their smartphones.


   They even cook data to bolster their attacks. Many claim the DNR is deceiving us by saying this year’s deer kill declined “only” 20%. They claim it’s 75% below the 20-year average.


   Trouble is, the 20-year average they cite isn’t from 2003 to 2022. It’s from the mid-1990s to 2013, which were epic, never-before/never-again Wisconsin deer seasons. Those years include the record 2000 season and three others—1999, 2004 and 2007—with gun-kills exceeding 400,000. Wisconsin also had record gun-hunter numbers those years, with highs fluctuating from 670,776 in 1994 to 694,712 in 2000. In contrast, the state sold 554,900 gun-deer licenses in 2022 and about 554,500 this year, which is nearly 20% fewer hunters than the epic years.


   Wisconsin also offered October gun-hunts many of those years, as well as two-week either-sex hunts in southwestern CWD counties during the holiday season, and widespread earn-a-buck regulations to boost antlerless kills. Let’s also note license sales today mimic those from a half-century ago. In 1974, 556,815 gun-hunters killed 100,405 deer, or roughly a deer every 3.3 seconds.


   Besides, the November 2023 buck-kill aligns with gun seasons we’ve had since 2009. That was the season that triggered the “new age of deer hunting,” which former DNR secretary Cathy Stepp announced in 2014 after Deer Czar James Kroll promised to make deer hunting fun again.


   But don’t feel alone, folks. Minnesota’s deer kill during its early archery and 16-day gun seasons was down 22% from 2022. Further, the gun-kill during Michigan’s 16-day season fell 17% statewide; varying from 26.2% in the U.P., to 7.4% in the southern Lower Peninsula, and 16% in the northern Lower Peninsula.


   Blame the Wisconsin DNR for whatever you choose, but let’s concede its magical powers end at our state’s borders.

 

Wisconsin 9-Day Gun Season Harvests, 2005-2023

Year    Antlered    Antlerless    Total              Year     Antlered    Antlerless    Total

2023      85,390      88,552          173,942         2013      96,986        132,904        229,890

2022      99,042      105,839        204,881         2012      113,330      132,711        246,041

2021      86,567        96,466        183,033         2011      101,486      127,143        228,629

2020      86,819      109,372        196,191         2010      101,424      120,110        221,534

2019      76,849        91,747        168,596         2009       87,226      114,768        201,994

2018    106,038      113,677        219,715         2008        98,915      186,328        285,243

2017      99,671      103,189        202,860         2007      125,440      228,944        354,384

2016      98,553      103,785        202,338         2006      140,105      185,525        325,630

2015      94,269      110,856        205,125         2005      127,608      214,803        342,411

2014      91,223      108,360        199,583        

   * Unknowns (gender) evenly divided between antlered and antlerless totals.

Wisconsin’s deer kill during November's gun-hunt fell 19% from 2022. Meanwhile, Minnesota reports a 22% decline, and Michigan a 17% drop. — Patrick Durkin photo

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