Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deer Biologists Easier Targets than Deer

From the Wildlife Management Institute

Deer Biologists Easier Targets than Deer for Some Hunters in Wisconsin

Photo of deer by DoriIn a recent press release, a Wisconsin State Senator called for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) to “replace the Department’s big game management team.” Upset that his annual deer drive didn’t produce desired results, the Senator lashed out at what he deemed the source of the reduced statewide harvest: “I’ve talked with a lot of hunters and business people and everyone has said that this was the worst deer hunting season they have ever had. The DNR has mismanaged the deer herd and a new team needs to be brought in that can do the job.”

Contentiousness is not new to deer hunting in Wisconsin. In this instance, it is a particular déjà vu throwback to the mid-1940s rancor of certain “sportsmen” who opposed deer herd reduction, especially antlerless harvest, despite the fact of a large and growing deer herd and deteriorating habitat conditions nearly statewide. The target of their vitriol, boorishness and threats was Wisconsin Conservation Congress (WCC) chairman Aldo Leopold. Leopold and others had produced a report in 1943, which concluded that, “there is an imperative need for prompt and decisive herd reduction in the irruptive counties.” The naysayers decried herd reduction (which was widely adopted) as extermination and the demise of deer hunting. In 1944, the harvest of “exterminated deer” was 28,600; in 1954, it was 25,400; in 1964, it was 96,600; in 1974, it was 112,900; in 1984, it was 295,300; in 1994, it was 377,500; and in 2004, it was 519,400. For that matter, more deer were killed by deer/vehicle collisions in Wisconsin in 2008 (at least 32,000) than there were deer harvested by Wisconsin hunters in 1944 (28,693).

According to preliminary results (the season continues in some parts of the state), although harvest success was down from 43 percent in 2008 to 31 percent this year, more than 196,600 deer (including 86,250 antlered bucks) have been taken by 638,040 gun hunters, which is less than 1 percent fewer hunters than in 2008. The harvest does not include the bow and muzzleloader success, which may increase the take by 25 to 35 percent. The 2009 harvest likely will be lower than any year since 1983. Conversely, it will be higher than any year prior to 1983. Clearly, not every Wisconsin deer hunter has had his or her worst season ever.

The prehunting season deer population in the state was estimated at somewhat less than 1.5 million (still, three times the whitetail population in all of North America 100 years ago, when there was no deer hunting season in the state). However, WDNR officials anticipated a reduced harvest because of low fawn production in 2008, predicted unfavorable weather during the deer season, and changes in the deer season structure with the intent or reducing pressure on antlerless deer in a number of management units. In 2009, 13 deer management units had no bonus antlerless permits in order to allow populations in those areas to increase; 38 units were moved out of herd control to regular season; and 29 units were moved out of their Earn-a-Buck program. Each of these contributed to a substantial decline in antlerless harvest in 2009.

As to the competence of the WDNR’s big game biologists, the WDNR, in cooperation with the WCC, enlisted in 2006 a panel of out-of-state wildlife professionals with extensive experience in deer management to review Wisconsin’s deer management operations and procedures. This was done in response to concerns voiced by deer hunters. The panel ultimately identified several areas where adjustments in operations might improve management capability. However, its overall conclusion was: “Wisconsin has the most comprehensive and transparent deer management program for comparable states that harvest white-tailed deer. Wisconsin collects more demographic information, on an annual basis, to monitor the deer population than any of the 21 states we surveyed. The WDNR should be commended for its efforts to track deer population dynamics and make those efforts transparent.” (The review panel’s 2006 report can be viewed at:

Deer management in Wisconsin has been complicated by Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which has impacted a significant portion of the southern part of the state. To eradicate or contain the disease, the WDNR has aggressively worked to lower deer densities in the CWD zone. Because of the nature of the terrain and land ownership, eradication has failed and containment has had only modest success.

The difficulty that big game biologists face in managing remarkably dynamic white-tailed population size, density and distribution is not that they don’t know how to do it. Rather, the problems encountered include lack of agreement among citizens (stakeholders) about how large the deer population should be. Also, big game biologists do not manage habitat or enforce harvest on the private lands that constitute the vast majority of Wisconsin acreage. They do not control weather any more than they dictate their agency’s budget. If the WDNR is to be criticized for its deer management program, it may be for earlier policy decisions, influenced by hunter demands, that enabled an irrupting deer herd to exceed its long-term habitat carrying capacity in many parts of the state.

While harvest success and corresponding satisfaction by some Wisconsin hunters in 2009 may be reduced, there are some positives that have resulted from the situation. Hunting incidences in Wisconsin, for example, have declined, and the state’s incident rate of 1.11 per 100,000 hunters compares more than favorably with the national average of 3 per 100,000 hunters. Deer/vehicle collisions in Wisconsin actually are on the decline as are the numbers of dead deer and injured humans as a result. The negligible decline in hunter numbers masks the fact that deer hunter numbers have rebounded substantially from those of the CWD confusion at the outset of the decade. With the “return” of deer hunters has been a gradual rebuilding of the devastated deer camp traditions in the state.

Despite the dissatisfaction of some hunters, Wisconsin continues to rank among the very top deer harvest states in the nation. Earlier this year, a study by a professor at Concordia College in Nebraska revealed that, based on the prior 10 years, Wisconsin is the top trophy deer state in the country, with 26 of its counties are among the nation’s top 50. As a result of the modestly reduced whitetail population in Wisconsin, hunting experiences and harvest expectations may become more akin to those of past decades and eras when the taking of any deer was a feat, not a perceived entitlement. (pmr/rem)


  1. I love the title! I've hunted Wisconsin for the last 20 years and this season was the worst that I can remember. I don't need to see deer every time I hit the woods, but I hunted over 20 days this year in both south, central and northern WI in spots that consistently have produced at least deer sightings and I can count on one hand how many deer I saw this year. Even in some of the "down" years of the past I would at least see a few deer every day.

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