A doe is released after being fitted with a radio collar. The Wisconsin Department of Natural resources used a helicopter in February to capture and tag deer in Shawano and Rusk Counties as part of a multi-year study of the state's deer herd. / William Glasheen/Gannett Wisconsin Media
The Wisconsin Department of Natural resources uses a helicopter to capture and tag deer. / William Glasheen/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Dates for Wisconsin’s various 2011 deer seasons.
BOW SEASONS: Sept. 17-Nov. 17, 2011, Nov. 28, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012
GUN SEASON: Nov. 19-27, 2011
MUZZLELOADER: Nov. 28-Dec. 7, 2011
YOUTH DEER: Oct. 8- 9, 2011
OCTOBER ANTLERLESS: Oct. 13-16, 2011
SECOND ANTLERLESS: Dec. 8-11, 2011
— Wisconsin DNR
While many of the best years for the state’s nine-day gun-deer hunt have occurred during the past decade, the 2009 gun-deer harvest was the smallest in a 16-year period, according to a Green Bay Press-Gazette analysis of 40 years of Wisconsin deer-hunting statistics and interviews with key constituents.
Despite regular complaints from hunters across the state who believe the size of the herd continues to shrink, the newspaper found that six of the state’s 10 largest gun-deer harvests have occurred since 2001. In that period, the state also recorded six of its 10 most-successful hunts in terms of deer killed per license issued.
The large harvests were recorded in recent years despite the discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease, which was first discovered in Wisconsin in 2002.
The same decade, however, produced the state’s lowest gun-deer harvests since 1993. The low harvest in 2009 caused many hunters in Wisconsin to demand changes in the state’s deer management efforts.
“There is some skepticism among hunters that our population estimates are off,” said Robert Manwell, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages the herd. “Even though the basics of deer-management, the process of goal-setting, haven’t changed.”
The chances of a hunter bagging a deer has increased in recent years, according to a Press-Gazette analysis of deer hunt statistics dating back to the mid-1960s.
Beginning with the 2003 gun-deer hunt, the state has regularly reported rates of 0.6 kills per license issued, a rate not seen before 2000. That increase comes despite the fact that Wisconsin issues fewer gun deer licenses each year than it did in much of the 1980s and ’90s.
The past decade also has been good for bow-hunters, who enjoy a two-month season beginning in mid-September, and a season of almost six weeks beginning in late November. The number of antlerless deer taken by bow has remained high for most of those years.
Yet a number of hunters clearly remain unhappy. After the 2009 season, a DNR study found that 82 percent rated their satisfaction “very low” or “fairly low.”
“About the only thing that’s certain about deer season,” said Tom Larscheid, a Green Bay man who regularly hunts with friends and family in Bayfield County in rural northwestern Wisconsin, and near Pembine, Gillett and Green Bay, “is that everyone complains about the size of the herd.”
The DNR’s strategy for herd management is a complicated mix of art and science, affecting hundreds of thousands of people. More than 700,000 state residents and 44,000 non-residents were licensed to hunt deer in Wisconsin in 2009, the most recent year data are available.
To set a target for the size of the herd — called the “overwinter population goal” — the DNR must balance the interests of hunters and other stakeholders, including farmers, business owners and motorists.
The DNR works to set a goal that will produce a healthy herd, a thriving ecosystem and few complaints of damage to crops and foliage within each of about 140 subdivisions of the state, called “deer-management units.” And the department has to generate what it calls “good hunting opportunities,” during the nine-day gun deer season each November.
The state also allows gun-hunting of antlerless deer in some areas for a handful of days in mid-October and across much of the state in mid-December. In total, gun hunters take about three times as many deer as bowhunters do, DNR statistics show.
Setting a goal is a delicate yet complicated equation — one that DNR takes 47 pages to explain on its website — and the basics change little from year to year. DNR scientists consider factors such as the number of fawns born during the summer, the number of deer that hunters killed the previous winter, weather conditions in previous seasons and the age of the herd.
The DNR counts deer in a variety of ways, including walking around in the woods and taking a helicopter over parts of the state. Officials project how many deer the supply of food and shelter can support, and consider external factors such as vehicle traffic volumes and the presence of predators.
A great deal is at stake. An increase in the deer population could mean more damage to crops and forests, and more car-deer collisions on the highway. And a smaller deer herd could prompt criticism from the thousands of people who hunt.
The way in which a hunter measures the season is intensely personal. Asked to name the most important factor in determining the success of a hunt, 51 percent of hunters the DNR surveyed said “seeing deer.” After that: spending time with friends and family. The chance to kill a deer ranked third, “seeing bucks” fourth.
A bad year
When the total gun-deer harvest fell 30 percent in 2009, dropping below 250,000 for the first time since 1993, complaints about DNR’s herd-management hit an all-time high.
Not only were hunters upset about not getting as many deer, according to veteran hunter Lloyd Voss of Fond du Lac, they felt like they were rarely seeing any. One state senator called for everyone involved in DNR’s deer-management to be fired. Scott Walker, then a candidate for governor, said the herd shrunk in 2009 because of “mismanagement” by the DNR under then-Gov. Jim Doyle.
In a DNR survey of almost 4,000 hunters after the 2009 season, four in five rated their satisfaction “very low” or “fairly low.” Hunters said they believe the herd size declined, and that the state overestimated the population.
“I saw maybe six or eight deer total during the entire (gun deer) season,” said Voss, a 62-year-old who hunts near Hayward in the Northwoods, in the Waukesha area and near his home.
“It used to be you’d see deer every day — 10 or 15 was a ‘bad’ day.”
DNR spokesman Manwell said the agency’s basic approach to setting the population goal varies little from year to year — but the hunter’s perception of it does. A hunter who sees and gets a shot at a deer thinks the agency has done a good job. And when hunters don’t see deer, they complain.
“The world of deer is only what (hunters) see from their tree stand,” he said. “That’s their universe.”
Wisconsin hunters will get to have their say on all things hunting in April when the DNR holds its annual Conservation Congress meetings in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. The sessions allow people to voice concerns about wildlife management and question DNR officials.
“We want to get their ideas, and their reactions to ours,” said Manwell, of DNR.
The meetings are held every year, but suggestions on different ways to manage the deer herd come all time.
Some groups advocate for a gun-deer season longer than nine days, saying it would give hunters more flexibility, reduce the impact on businesses from hunters who miss work, and enable the state to recover from a bad opening weekend tied to inclement weather.
“A longer season, or one that’s split, might help,” said Paul Zimmerman, a Wisconsin Farm Bureau lobbyist who spends the week of Thanksgiving hunting near Eau Claire every year.
He said the bureau believes the state has helped farmers address crop damage, but says the state is betting too heavily on good weather for opening weekend.
“Minnesota has their opening weekend, then closes (the season) and reopens,” he said. “It’s like there are two opening weekends.”
Larscheid, the hunter from Green Bay, hears the options, and chuckles.
DNR, he said, does a pretty good job of managing its herd, but says changes won’t stop the complaints.
“A lot of (hunters) will say they didn’t leave enough deer, maybe because they didn’t get one. Some farmers will say the deer did too much damage to their crops, and we should be shooting more,” he said.
“And some people will say that DNR would be better off if it just worried about something else.”
Officials estimate Wisconsin's deer herd last year was 1.55 million prehunt and 1.16 million posthunt. An estimate in an earlier version of this story was incorrect.
Contact Doug Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org.