Wisconsin's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Wisconsin's 2010 Deer Outlook -- Part 1

Deer numbers in many units are closer to goal than ever, and so Wisconsin hunters might have to spend more time in the woods to put venison in their freezers. This information should help increase your odds.

Wisconsin is such a whitetail hunting hotspot that even in a down year, our state is among the national leaders in deer kill.

While that's not enough to please hunters unhappy with what they feel was excessive use of Earn-a-Buck and antlerless seasons, even the DNR-doubters have to admit we've got something special going on here.

Last year's gun buck kill was the worst in 30 years, yet hunting was still good enough that the combined gun and bow harvest total of 329,103 whitetails made it the 16th straight 300,000-plus kill, dating back to 1994. In the past 12 years alone Wisconsin had five 400,000-plus season harvests, four that topped the half-million mark and a national record of more than 615,000 deer taken at the start of the millennium.

The list of possible reasons the gun buck kill fell short last November was long, not the least of which was a deer herd reduced by design with years of Earn-a-Buck and liberal antlerless regulations in many units. However, opening weekend was unseasonably warm, and fog limited visibility both mornings in many areas. There also was more than a million acres of corn left standing in farm fields. That's great cover for Wisconsin bucks.

Wildlife officials had predicted a big drop in the antlerless kill due to no Earn-a-Buck outside the CWD zone, and fewer antlerless tags awarded. However, most of them didn't anticipate a second straight nosedive in the gun buck kill.

Bowhunters fared much better, though. Could what some have called "DNR excuses" really have played a significant role in the gun buck kill drop? It's possible, since bowhunters tagged 41,402 antlered bucks, their fourth best effort ever. All the Top 10 archery buck kills have taken place in the last 15 years.

Gun hunters, meanwhile, have posted 8 out of their best 10 buck kills since 1995. Last year's count of 92,754 was the worst since 1980, and even more surprising because Earn-a-Buck rules were suspended outside of the CWD zones.

However, the two-year gun buck harvest drop of more than 40,000 was not unprecedented. In fact, twice in the past 15 years there have been even greater dips. The first one, from 1995 to 1997, was a 50,000-plus slide that came on the heels of back-to-back severe winters. The second, a drop of more than 45,000 from 2000 to 2002, came after the national record harvest. The big decline also was aided by the CWD fear factor in the 2002 season, when nearly 70,000 fewer gun hunters bought licenses.

If there's any consolation for those who haven't seen a deer in recent years -- or at least a deer they could have shot or wanted to shoot -- it's that even during the record and near-record harvest years, wildlife biologists heard from hunters concerned that the Department of Natural Resources was grossly overestimating the deer herd.

In fact, DNR's Northeast Region wildlife biologist, Jeff Pritzl, has heard the "no deer" mantra for more than a decade. Pritzl agrees that the herd was smaller than it has been in some time last year, but he said that was by design due to managing toward over-winter goals that were raised recently.

"I can sympathize with folks who say they aren't seeing the deer they used to," Pritzl said. "But I think we hunters can have a lot to do with how many deer we see or don't see just based on the way hunting tactics have changed over the years."

For example, Pritzl said, large group drives during the gun hunt occur far less frequently, as more land is split into smaller parcels and private landowners become more protective of their properties. With fewer groups doing drives and more people sitting in elevated tower stands overlooking ag lands, food plots, or baited sites, many deer just stay bedded during daylight hours once the hunting pressure is on.

Declining habitat quality, hard winters and predators also played roles pertaining to deer numbers in parts of the northern and central forests.

STILL PLENTY OF DEER

Pritzl said there are still plenty of deer available, though they're not equally spread across the landscape. That's where pre-hunt scouting comes in. If you want to be among the hunters donning the gutting gloves this fall, now's the time to prepare for it.

While the odds often favor those who own or lease property for hunting, even those restricted to public lands can get in on the action. That's because Wisconsin has more than 6 million acres of public property open to hunting and another million or so of private land enrolled in forest tax law or crop damage programs in which the landowner allows hunting access.

There's no list of the "best" public hunting parcels. Even if there were, it'd be open for debate as hunters often have differing views on what constitutes a quality experience. But no matter where you live, there's likely a spot nearby offering walk-in hunting with an opportunity at producing venison. Start your search online, or pick up a county plat book in the area of your choice. The more serious hunters might want to look into a topo map and aerial images to help pinpoint likely areas.

You also might consider checking with the land manager to see if he can provide any inside information on where they've seen deer as well as the most and least hunting pressure in recent years. For example, some spots that are hunted hard in the gun season see far fewer archers, and even then many of them hunt only weekends or the peak of the rut.

There are no guarantees, but your hunt for the right spot might include scouring DNR harvest data that's available online. Certain counties and DMUs are perennial leaders in harvest, but is that because they have so many deer, or is it because they have so many more square miles of deer range? The largest unit, for example (61), has an estimated 958 square miles of deer range, while the smallest (1M) has just 32.

Still, it's hard to argue with the numbers produced year after year in the farmland units. Counties like Buffalo, Clark, Dunn, Jackson, Polk and Trempealeau in the western ag land, Marathon, southern Marinett

e, Shawano and Waupaca in the east and Columbia, Grant and Sauk in the south all put out big numbers of deer.

Waupaca, Marathon, Clark, Shawano and Polk were the top five in numbers of deer registered by archers last fall, combining for about a sixth of the entire harvest.

Clark led the gun kill with more than 8,600 whitetails, followed by Polk at more than 7,500, Shawano at more than 6,500, Sauk at 6,496 and Marathon at 6,345. Dunn, Grant, Jackson and Buffalo all gave up 6,000 or more, and Trempealeau was close at 5,923. All told, the top 10 gun counties combined for more than 65,000 deer, more than a fourth of the state's firearm harvest.

No matter what county or unit you choose, the fact is plenty of hunters there are going to tag out on venison this fall. To increase your chances that you're among the successful, you'll need to hunt smart.

When selecting tree stand sites that are away from food sources, look for trails on natural funnels between stands of cover or along lake and river shorelines. Good bets for ground blinds are transition areas such as those where evergreen forests meet a stand of hardwoods or where a trail cuts through a marsh or cornfield. Hunting clearcuts in big-woods country always is a solid bet, and swamps should never be overlooked, especially whenever the hunting pressure is on.

Most deer experts say they have their best success by rotating stand or blind sites and only hunting them when the wind is favorable for that spot. If you're hunting public land, always have a backup plan or two in mind. You may find you need it.

Eric Walker, of Elk Mound, shot this 185-pound 8-point buck on Thanksgiving Day in Buffalo County last season. Photo courtesy of Eric Walker.

NO ANTLERLESS IN 18 UNITS

Again this fall, there will be no Earn-a-Buck regulations outside the CWD zones. And, even more restrictive -- in an effort to let the herd rebuild in areas where it's below goal -- there will be no bow or gun antlerless deer hunting in 18 DMUs. Those include units 7, 13, 28, 29A, 29B, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 49A and 52.

A total of 66 deer management units are designated as regular units, meaning they will have traditional nine-day November gun hunts with buck-plus-antlerless quota rules. This is an increase from 62 regular units in 2009 and considerably up from the 22 units in 2008.

Doe and fawn harvest will be carefully managed by permits in regular units outside of the 18 that have no antlerless permits available to deer hunters in 2010. In remaining regular units antlerless deer harvest permits are limited and unit-specific. Residents can buy them for $12 each, while non-residents pay $20 each. Forty-six DMUs are designated as herd control. Located mainly in the agricultural regions of the state, deer populations in herd control units are estimated to be more than 20 percent above established goals. There is an unlimited supply of antlerless deer harvest permits available for those units at $2 each. The permits are not unit specific.

Hunters also can use the antlerless permit that comes with each archery and gun deer license in any herd control unit. Herd control units will also have an Oct. 14-17 antlerless-deer only gun hunt.

Twenty-two DMUs are designated as Chronic Wasting Disease Management. These units will again have unlimited Earn-a-Buck rules and will also be included in the Oct. 14-17 antlerless-deer only gun hunt. Earn-a-Buck requires hunters to first harvest an antlerless deer before a buck. Unused buck authorizations from the 2009 season can be used to harvest a buck in the 2010 season. Hunters can shoot as many antlerless deer as they want to, and they will receive a buck authorization for each antlerless deer registered.

The regular bow deer season runs Sept. 18 to Nov. 18 and again Nov. 29 to Jan. 9. The annual disabled gun deer hunt is Oct. 2-10, the youth hunt Oct. 9-10 and the four-day doe and fawn gun season Oct. 14-17.

Next up is the 9-day gun season Nov. 20-28, followed by the 10-day muzzleloader season Nov. 29 to Dec. 8 and a four-day, antlerless-only hunt Dec. 9-12 in all units except those where no antlerless hunting is permitted this year. A "holiday hunt" gun season will run Dec. 24 to Jan. 9 in the CWD units.

Youth 10 to 15 -- with or without a hunter safety certificate -- will be able to participate in the youth hunt. Those who don't have a hunter safety certificate can hunt with a mentor under the mentored hunting program created in 2009. Youth 12 to 15 years old who do have hunter safety certificate must be accompanied by an adult 18 years of age or older during this youth hunt. Youth on this hunt will be able to shoot one antlered buck with their gun buck deer carcass tag, and additional antlerless deer per antlerless deer carcass tag valid in the DMU where the youth is hunting.

DEER STUDIES

Retired deer researcher Keith McCaffery of Rhinelander said the winter severity index was low in most parts of the north. That should have translated to improved fawn recruitment after sub-par returns the past two years.

Successful hunters who filled out stubs last fall reported that adult does made up about 71 1/2 percent of the antlerless deer harvest, buck fawns about 15 percent of the kill and doe fawns about 13 1/2 percent.

McCaffery said the overwinter population estimate was 990,000 and was based on reconstructing the herd after the fall harvest. The projection for this fall comes when an estimate is made on the annual increase after fawns are born; this has averaged about 1 1/2 times the overwinter number statewide -- lower in the north and higher in the south.

However, the past two fawn crops were below average. While hunters were quick to blame predators such as wolves, bears and coyotes, McCaffery said hard winters take a much bigger toll.

DNR Big Game Specialist Keith Warnke said there was greatly reduced fawn production in 2008 and the numbers were better, but still below average, in the northern and central forest units last year.

The northern forest has lost some of its ability to harbor more deer as it matures. Biologists say there may well be areas where fawns are even dying because their mothers don't have enough quality habitat to nurse them. That's because previous generations of deer ate it when numbers were well above goal.

McCaffery thinks the deer population is higher than many Wisconsin hunters believe it is. To prove that, he said he needs a couple of inches of snow and seasonal temperatures for the gun opener.

Meanwhile, Warnke said the DNR is listening to hunters and is investing $2 million in funds from the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act in an effort to enhance the acc

uracy and precision of deer population estimates. Among the key research projects planned are impacts of predators on deer, and studies on buck mortality.

If the DNR can get hunters to buy into the results of the new studies -- and better yet, if the buck kill takes a solid step up this fall -- it'll go a long way toward resolving the decades-old question of whether or not the DNR can count deer.

As McCaffery said, "Dead deer don't lie."

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