During the past few years, there have been numerous changes in Wisconsin deer hunting regulations. Here’s where we stand now.
By Dan Small
Wisconsin deer hunters are a funny lot. They are so hide-bound when it comes to what they perceive as tradition that they’ll resist any changes to season formats and regulations tooth and nail.
But if they think they’re getting the short end of the harvest-opportunity stick in their corner of the woods, they’ll beat down the doors of legislators, DNR officials and anyone else who will listen to make their wishes for change known.
And so, when the state revamped a backpack-load of rules over the last few seasons, some hunters were happy, while others cried foul, and the bellowing echoed in the woods and taverns from Superior to Kenosha.
OVERVIEW OF NEW REGS
Some of the complaints were due simply to hunters’ frustrations over trying to understand the new regulations. Perhaps in anticipation of the attachment hunters feel toward their traditions, the front cover of last year’s regulations booklet bore the slogan “Starting New Traditions.” Nice try, but I doubt many hunters were impressed.
First off, the deer management units in use for many years were eliminated. Now, most DMUs follow county boundaries. Easy enough to figure out, but if you used to hunt a unit that straddled two counties, you had to adapt to that change.
The six metro units remain, but now they are sub-units of the counties where they are located. And state parks open to deer hunting (not all of them are) now fall under the county unit where they are located, and so special tags are no longer required to hunt them.
The state is now divided into two Forest zones and two Farmland zones. Most counties fall within one zone, but the Central Forest Zone comprises parts of Eau Claire, Clark, Wood, Adams, Juneau, Monroe and Jackson counties. Similarly, the northern portions of Marinette and Oconto counties lie within the Northern Forest Zone, but the southern portions of both lie within the Central Farmland Zone.
Hunters must pay attention to these zone designations because antlerless tags are now issued by county and zone. These tags are valid for either public or private land, but not both.
In the recent past, hunters received one antlerless tag valid in any farmland zone unit with each deer license (gun or bow), and they could purchase additional bonus antlerless tags valid for a particular DMU, until those tags were sold out. Now they must indicate the county (DMU), the zone and the land type where they plan to hunt when selecting the free Farmland Zone antlerless tag that comes with a deer license, or when purchasing a bonus tag.
In some counties, hunters could select up to three free antlerless tags when buying a bow or gun license. This year, Richland County may offer four tags per license.
The new Go Wild license-issuing system brought along other changes as well. Back tags were eliminated last year, and all tags are now printed on paper. Hunters may print them at home or have them printed at the point of purchase. All of these transactions are now done online, either by the hunter or by a license-issuing agent.
Deer must still be registered, but now this is done by phone or online. Most in-person registration stations were eliminated, but several hundred stations allowed hunters to use their computers or phones to register deer.
One additional recent change with considerable impact was the legalization of crossbows for all hunters and the creation of the crossbow license. Hunters can now purchase either a bow or crossbow license, and they can add the privilege to hunt with both implements for an additional three dollars. The buck limit remains at one with gun or muzzleloader, and one with bow or crossbow.
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HUNTER, WARDEN RESPONSE
The implementation of all these new regulations over a span of two or three years caused some confusion and unintentional violations, especially among the more than 100,000 hunters who purchased a gun deer license on the day before the season.
More than a few hunters who bought a license on their way “up north” were dumbfounded when the clerk handed them a sheet of white paper containing their license and tags.
The paper tags themselves caused the most headaches.
The regulations state that a hunter must validate a tag immediately after taking a deer. In the past, you simply slit the plastic tag in two places (for date and time) and attached it to the deer. Last year for the first time, hunters were required to write the date and time on the paper tag and keep the tag from getting wet or tearing as to be illegible.
Hunters were required to attach a tag to a deer only if the deer was left unattended (e.g. in a truck while a hunter was paying for gas, or at camp while hunters were in the woods).
The regs booklet suggests hunters carry a pen or pencil, a zip-top plastic bag to protect the tag, and a zip-tie or string to fasten the bag to the deer.
At some popular license outlets, DNR staff handed out free pens and plastic bags to hunters on the day before the gun season.
Many hunters lost their paper tags, got them wet or failed to follow the letter of the law. After the season, letters and emails from disgruntled hunters poured in to newspapers and the DNR detailing the problems with the new tags and requesting a return to the familiar Valeron (plastic) tags.
Wardens didn’t like the new tags, either. Some described it as “dysfunctional.”
In the Bureau of Law Enforcement’s annual statewide deer season report, wardens cited many accidental and intentional violations. One warden commented that 95 percent of the hunters he contacted failed to validate their carcass tags immediately upon killing a deer. Wardens across the state encountered numerous people hunting without a license. Some were hunting to fill a different hunters’ tags, while others planned to buy a license if and when they bagged a deer.
Some ethical hunters complained that the new system made it “too easy for poachers.”
Wardens in the Southeast Region reported an uptick in trespassing and night-hunting, perhaps in response to the perception that the new tagging system meant the laws were being relaxed.
Wardens exercised considerable discretion, issuing more warnings than citations and using unintentional violations as teaching moments. Those included failure to carry a tag, failure to validate a tag, carrying multiple copies of a tag, and so on.
Flagrant violations, such as hunting without purchasing a license, resulted in citations. The report stated, “It was apparent that, as an agency, we fell well short in meeting the educational needs in communicating and instilling the new license and deer-tagging requirements for our hunters.”
Although hunters told wardens they liked the old Valeron tags and did not like or understand the new tags, most approved of the new Go Wild licensing and registration system, especially the ease with which they could now register a deer. Still, many hunters said they missed the camaraderie and “deer camp” atmosphere of the old walk-in registration stations.
Many of these registration stations were in small tackle shops, some of which also used to hold big-buck contests. With the elimination of in-person registration, some of these small shops reported a significant drop in business during the deer season.
I asked one northern Wisconsin tackle and gun shop owner during the bow season if she had seen any big deer. “We don’t see any deer,” she replied. “No one brings them in anymore.”
Some hunters also claimed that reported harvest totals were no longer reliable. Hunters who reported hearing fewer shots and seeing fewer deer said there was no way the buck harvest could have increased by 30 percent in the North.
In response, DNR big-game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang pointed out that two successive mild winters meant there were more bucks available, and limited antlerless tags encouraged more hunters to shoot bucks.
The DNR used several ways of monitoring compliance, and it appeared hunters were registering deer at about the same rate as when walk-in registration was required. DNR officials acknowledge some hunters don’t bother to register deer, but they believe the steep fines for violating registration requirements continue to deter most would-be violators.
“If you registered your deer under the old system, why wouldn’t you register them with the new electronic system, which is easier and quicker?” Wallenfang asked.
CHANGES FOR THIS SEASON
Hunters will see several changes in the regulations for this season. Paper tags are still with us, but now hunters will simply cut off the bottom portion of the tag when they kill a deer, instead of writing the time and date of kill on it.
Hunters must still carry the tag and attach it to an unattended deer, and deer must still be registered by 5 p.m. on the day after they are taken. A confirmation number entered in the hunter’s Go Wild account will enable wardens to verify online that a deer was legally taken.
The Natural Resources Board approved two additional regulations changes.
As of this writing, both proposals needed to be approved by the State Legislature and signed by Gov. Walker. One changed the words “hunting hours” to “shooting hours.”
Under this change, hunters would be in violation only if they shot at a deer before or after legal hours. Most hunters like this change because it allows them to remain in their stand after legal shooting hours so as not to spook deer still in the area. Under the old rule, a hunter was in violation if his gun or bow were still loaded after legal hours.
The other change would allow hunters to leave tree stands or ground blinds in place overnight on state lands north of Highway 64. Hunters would be limited to two stands per county. This rule would not apply to federal or county land.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Chronic Wasting Disease has been detected in wild deer in a total of 18 of the state’s 72 counties. The disease is spreading, but the highest prevalence rate is located in western Dane and eastern Iowa counties.
The state will continue to test hunter-killed deer in selected areas to monitor the spread of the disease. In addition, hunters who take deer anywhere in the state can have them tested for CWD at no charge.
Baiting and feeding of deer is banned in 43 counties, which includes counties within 10 miles of a captive or free-roaming deer that has tested positive for the CWD.
The state’s CWD Response Plan was updated last spring. High-priority action items include enforcing carcass transport restrictions, educating hunters on the risk of carcass movement, improving public understanding and participation in CWD management, informing meat processors and taxidermists on carcass disposal, collaborating with outside researchers and developing quicker and cheaper testing procedures.
The revised plan will be reviewed by the DNR, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and the Conservation Congress before it is implemented.
OUTLOOK FOR THIS SEASON
According to Wallenfang, hunters should expect to see more deer this year than last, thanks to a third consecutive mild winter. As of this writing, only Ashland and Iron counties were proposed to have a bucks-only season. Elsewhere, antlerless permit numbers should be at or above last year’s levels. Overall, DNR staffers are happy with recent harvest totals.
“Our system has always been set up to shoot somewhere in the neighborhood of 325,000 deer, but the high-harvest years of the mid-2000s have left some people unsatisfied with that target,” Wallenfang said. “We expect to see a slight increase in the harvest this season.”
That increase should make some hunters happy, but others will no doubt still complain and long for the “good old days.” When you take an objective look at deer population numbers, hunting opportunities and the liberal season framework, however, it’s hard not to conclude that Wisconsin offers some of the best deer hunting found anywhere. For many of us, the good old days are now.