MADISON — Wisconsin wildlife officials should scrap local deer population goals, let landowners hold hunts on their property and establish better connections with the public, a consultant hired by the governor concluded in a report released Tuesday.
Texas researcher James Kroll’s study focuses largely on the Department of Natural Resources’ shortcomings but takes hunters to task, too, saying they expect the agency to maintain a herd so large the landscape can’t support it. His plan offers the two sides a chance to compromise and save Wisconsin’s hunting traditions from disappearing, he said.
“This is a reset button,” Kroll said of his recommendations. “If we’re going to continue to have the hunting heritage in Wisconsin, we’re going to have to do this.”
Walker released a statement calling on the DNR to act on the recommendations. DNR Lands Division administrator Kurt Thiede said in a statement that agency officials hadn’t yet reviewed the report.
“We are not afraid to face recommendations and critiques … and adjust accordingly,” Thiede said.
Deer hunters have been feuding with the DNR over the last decade or so, contending the agency’s herd control tactics have become so ham-handed and rigid they’re leading to anemic hunts.
Walker, a Republican, promised on the campaign trail to respond to hunters’ complaints. The governor’s administration hired Kroll in October for $125,000 to undertake an extensive review of the DNR’s policies.
Kroll’s team issued a preliminary report in March that was highly critical of the DNR but broke little new ground. The new study goes much deeper.
The report says the department’s population estimates aren’t precise enough to serve as the basis for population goals in individual management zones. Zone goals are crucial to hunters because the numbers determine which herd-control strategies the DNR might impose on an area.
The agency should do away with zone population estimates and goals, saying most hunters have little faith in them, the numbers are indefensible statistically and the constant argument over the figures erodes the DNR’s credibility. The DNR instead should adopt simple goals such as increasing, stabilizing or decreasing zone populations.
The DNR also should start a program that allows landowners and hunting clubs to run hunts on their property after consulting with DNR biologists. The hunts would help manage local herds, build trust with the public and provide valuable scientific data from the dead deer. At least 20 states already allow such hunts, according to the report.
Democratic legislators complained Kroll might recommend privatizing public lands, pointing to remarks he made in 2002 saying people who want more public land “are really pining for socialism.” Kroll dismissed the criticism as politically motivated — it came during the height of Democrats’ attempt to recall Walker this past spring — and he insisted his mini-hunt idea could apply across swaths of public land, too.
The study also calls on the DNR to better connect with the public and stakeholders. Agency biologists should spend more time working with forestry and agricultural specialists and develop local management teams. The agency should include volunteers in projects as much as possible and involve members of the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR, in local deer decisions.
Other recommendations included a more passive approach to chronic wasting disease focused on sampling for the fatal brain ailment; re-evaluating whether October antlerless hunts in the disease zone are effective; and setting antlerless hunt regulations every three to five years, rather than annually.
Still, Kroll praised DNR employees as professionals trying to do the right thing for Wisconsin wildlife. He ended the report by admonishing hunters, saying they want more deer than the land can sustain. They want government officials to maintain a herd so large it would defoliate the state’s forests and create more car-deer crashes, he said.
“Ironically, by attempting to raise more deer than the land can sustain, they wind up with fewer deer,” the report said.
Kroll warned if the DNR and hunters can’t agree on his recommendations and resolve their conflict, the state’s rich hunting tradition could vanish. Legislators will step in and start mandating heavy-handed changes, he said. Hunter numbers will decline and the DNR will have to rely on predators to control the herd, he said.
Rob Bohmann, chairman of the Conservation Congress, didn’t immediately return email and telephone messages.
Tim Van Deelen, a University of Wisconsin-Madison wildlife ecologist who criticized Kroll’s preliminary report as lacking scientific data, issued a statement saying he was pleasantly surprised by the final study.
Still, he noted the report doesn’t contemplate the recommendations’ long-range impact. Hunters should appreciate what they have in the state, he said.
“One could mount a very credible argument,” he wrote, “that deer hunting in Wisconsin is about as good as it gets in North America.”
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