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James Kroll. In 2011, Gov. Walker's administration hired Dr. James C. Kroll, the world's foremost expert in modern deer herd management, to provide an independent, objective, and scientifically based review of WisconsinÕs deer management practices. He reported his initial findings in March 2012 and held hearings around the state in April 2012. / Submitted photo

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A copy of the final report can be accessed at www.doa.state.wi.us.

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Wisconsin’s deer hunting future may be in the hands of the people — literally and figuratively — with today’s release of a long-anticipated review of the state’s whitetail management program.

“This is a get-out-of-jail-free card, a reset button, but you only get to press it once,” said Dr. James Kroll of Nacogdoches, Texas, hired last October as the newly named Deer Trustee by the Department of Administration. “There’s enough blame to go around to everybody. If these recommendations aren’t picked up, hunters will continue to leave in droves, and the animosity (between DNR and hunters) is going to deteriorate even further.”

Kroll, also known as “Dr. Deer,” was paid $125,000 in Department of Natural Resources funds for the exhaustive study. He added South Carolina forester and Quality Deer Management advocate Dr. David Guynn Jr. and California research biologist Dr. Gary Alt, formerly Pennsylvania’s top deer manager, to his review committee.

Special report on Wisconsin's deer herd: More 'On Target?' headlines | Search deer hunting statistics | Review deer management over the past 10 years

As expected, the team’s report was heavy on criticism of the DNR’s handling of chronic wasting disease and its sex, age and kill formula for estimating deer populations. And, as hinted at in public forums Kroll held around the state, it recommended the implementation of a Deer Management Assistance Program in which hunters work together with biologists on the local level.

“It’s a partnership,” Kroll said. “It’s biologists working landowners and hunters on both private and public lands. You sit down with them, evaluate the habitat and the goals, and get the hunters to help gather data. A trust situation starts to develop. It starts small, but it grows.”

Kroll said the program has worked in every state where it has been tried.
“Initially face to face is what’s best,” Kroll said, adding that the DNR could also implement a series of YouTube videos on various deer management projects, programs and advice for both private and public land hunters.

If the DNR and hunters don’t improve their working relationship, Kroll predicts politicians — through bills and laws — are going to tear deer hunting apart.
“Legislators tell me they don’t want that job,” Kroll said. “But they’ll do it if enough people complain.”

That already happened prior to Kroll being hired last fall, when legislators banned the use of the largely unpopular earn-a-buck program outside of the CWD zones and ended October antlerless gun hunts in most areas.

Biologists and deer hunters alike will have to make some concessions, Kroll said, in an effort to heal decades-old wounds exacerbated by earn-a-buck and chronic wasting disease regulation overkill.

The conflict between state agencies and hunters is not unique to Wisconsin, Kroll said, but he blamed many of the problems in the past on less-than-successful outreach efforts by the DNR. He also said hunter expectations may need to be scaled back.

Deer hunters who want deer densities higher than what the land can sustain can end up with fewer whitetails when the habitat gets hammered from years of overbrowsing, Kroll said. That’s why it’s important for biologists and hunters to sit down and get on the same page.

Kroll and his team are recommending a more passive approach in the CWD monitoring zones and limiting the use of accounting-style population models like the sex, age and kill formula. Instead, the team suggests replacing the current deer management unit goal definition with a simplified statement of increase, stabilize or decrease population density.

If the final plan is implemented, antlerless tags in regular and herd control units would all cost $12, and tags would be tied to specific lands — public or private. Currently, one antlerless tag is free with each license in herd control units, and additional tags are $2; regular units tags are $12 and are limited.

Kroll avoided any specific recommendations for controversial topics like baiting and crossbows in the archery season, instead saying that the public should decide. He said baiting and feeding especially offer conflicting traditions and conflicting economics.

“I don’t want to see the future of deer hunting in Wisconsin get derailed by arguing over the future of baiting or crossbows,” said Kroll. “Let’s let the bow hunters of Wisconsin decide if they want crossbows. And if CWD shows up in one more place, baiting is going to be a moot point.”

The team suggests establishing a research steering committee, with representation from user groups, stakeholders and regional DNR biologists and tribal representatives, and suggested a more active role in deer management decision-making for the Conservation Congress at the local level, as well as the addition of a Deer Management Assistance Program coordinator to oversee the program and give biologists someone to answer to.

“You’ll need a young, fresh face,” Kroll said. “There are three or four people in the country who could do this. They have to be very strong, a people person, willing to stand up within the department for the program and willing to be able to give local biologists a lot more autonomy but never develop into a futile lord system.”
Ongoing research should continue and even expand, Kroll said.

“Everybody should be behind this current predator research project,” said Kroll. “It’s good money spent, and a well-designed project with the public involved.”

The team said the DNR should look at allowing hunters to call in deer harvests or go online to report them, though Kroll said he would not do away with opening weekend gun season registration data collection that provides vital harvest data for biologists.

“It would be supplemented with DMAP data gathering, and telecheck or internet registrations,” said Kroll, who noted that the department could even consider having hunters measure the inches from the corner of a deer’s eye to the tip of the nose such as done in Illinois to help gather aging data outside of opening weekend of the gun hunt.

“That’s morphometric data, and it’s a good way to supplement and help anyone age a deer,” Kroll said.

Kroll said no-hunt refuges will provide challenges to biologists, but he said biologists are going to have to engage those landowners and make it clear they’re part of the management process. If that doesn’t work, he said adjacent landowners or even public land managers will have to find a way to make that land more popular for deer.

“In QDM for example, some landowners are holdouts, but we don’t let them stop us,” Kroll said. “it’s never a perfect world.”

Kroll said his team was impressed the past nine months by the passion of deer hunters who were reasonable about seeking possible solutions to the conflict, as well as the high degree of professionalism, competence and devotion of DNR employees to do the right thing for the resource.

“In the end, as always, the future will ultimately be decided by the people of Wisconsin,” Kroll said.

Gov. Scott Walker said he will work with DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and her team to review the report and move forward with implementation.

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