MADISON The deer population estimates of Wisconsin's wildlife officials are flawed, and they don't know enough about how predators affect deer and have reduced deer in chronic wasting disease zones to pests, according to a report Gov. Scott Walker's so-called "deer czar" released Wednesday.
James Kroll's study concludes hunters and landowners feel an "intense dissatisfaction" with the Department of Natural Resources and the agency needs a more human touch to rebuild its credibility.
"The WDNR has placed an inordinate emphasis on estimating population goals and establishing population density goals (which commonly are not met), while giving much less emphasis to habitat and people," the report said.
DNR big-game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang downplayed the report, saying the agency welcomed it as a path to improvement.
"We expect challenges. We expect things to be pointed out. We're not afraid of that," Wallenfang said.
Walker's administration hired Kroll, a Texas-based deer researcher, in October for $125,000 to review the DNR's deer management strategies. Walker promised on the campaign trail two years ago to respond to hunters' complaints that the DNR's overzealous herd control programs have led to anemic hunts.
The report said Kroll and two other researchers spoke with DNR staff and deer hunting groups and took comments from the public at large about perceived problems at the DNR. Kroll's group also reviewed previous studies looking at the DNR's methods.
The report doesn't go into extensive detail, but said the DNR's credibility problems with hunters stem from population overestimates and concluded the estimates are indefensible. Some of the data that goes into the estimates is decades old, the report said, citing as an example deer ranges based on 1993 satellite imagery. It said DNR biologists spent little time in the field studying the ranges and assessing herd health.
The DNR also hasn't conducted adequate studies on the state's wolves and the role they play in Wisconsin's ecosystem. The agency also lacks data on how bobcats, coyotes and bears affect deer and their habitat.
The agency's efforts to control chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain ailment in deer, in southern Wisconsin were a failure, the report went on to say. The DNR's main strategy kill as many deer as possible in affected areas to prevent the disease from spreading resulted in a "serious erosion" of public confidence in the agency and a perception that deer in disease zones are pests rather than a key game animal.
Among the report's other findings:
» The DNR uses an antiquated system to register deer at check stations using paper forms. Other states use electronic registration.
» The state lacks a buck record book, which could foster information gathering and another way for biologists and state residents to interact.
» The DNR has done little to help landowners manage deer on their property, revealing a mindset based on regulation.
» The agency needs to simplify its season structure and keep seasons consistent.
The DNR is already addressing many of the points Kroll raised. In 2010 the agency launched a $2 million project to improve deer population estimates, including studying predators' impact, expanding a database of hunter observations and improving communication with stakeholders. The agency has warned that some of the initiatives could take years to complete, however.
The agency also suspended its contentious earn-a-buck program, a herd control technique that required hunters to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck, outside of CWD zones in 2009 and 2010 before Republican lawmakers outlawed the program last year.
"Some of things they've identified in there are things the department has known for a long, long time," Wallenfang said.
Kroll is due to turn in a final report before the end of June. He plans to gather input at a series of town hall meetings around the state in April.