October 23, 2011
How serious are Wisconsites about deer? It’s so serious that as of this writing Gov. Scott Walker is still looking to bring in an outside "deer czar" to advise the state in all things whitetail. Supposedly that's to alleviate hunter gripes about the Department of Natural Resources' herd management, but it's tough to understand those complaints given the facts.
Jeff Pritzl, acting big game specialist, said his state is home to well over a million deer, and has good quality in addition to numbers. "Numbers-wise, by the sheer fact we're harvesting 300,000 to 500,000 animals annually, we're usually in the top three to five states in terms of volume. And if you look at Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young records, Wisconsin stands out in terms of numbers of entries."
He noted that having a million-plus deer "creates an impression that there's got to be deer everywhere. But at a local level – at the hunter 80-acre level – deer densities are diverse and uneven." Still, there's no doubt that Wisconsin is one of the top deer states in the country.
Deer Population: 1.5 million
Economic Impact of Deer Hunting: $1.1 billion
Wisconsin's east-central farmland produces the state's highest deer harvest per square mile. To envision this area, draw a triangle from Green Bay to Stevens Point to Madison.
If you're after antler size, "the opportunity is really good in the southern half of the state," Pritzl said. "Probably the best areas would be west-central along the Mississippi River – that has the best soils, the best mixture of woods and agriculture, just a perfect scenario for deer health – and the southeast part of the state." The southeast basically is a suburban deer refuge where many bucks "live to ripe old ages."
Current Status of the Deer Population: 1-5 scale with 1 being poor and 5 being optimal
"I'd say it's a 4 in terms of hunting opportunity," Pritzl said. "The only thing probably keeping it from being a 5 is that in the north-central and northeast parts of the state we have an area that's still below [the deer population] goal. But three-quarters of the state is above goal."
Status 5 Years From Now
Wisconsin is going into its third year of "relatively conservative antlerless harvest," Pritzl said, meaning it's likely deer numbers will continue to increase for the next few years. From there, the state may have to decide how to once again reduce the population to keep it within goal.
Given that, he said that "there's no reason to think we won't be in the 4 to 5 range five years from now in terms of hunting opportunity."
Biggest Factors Over the Next 5 Years
Antlerless deer will be a big factor over the next five years, Pritzl said. "The ability and willingness [of hunters] to harvest antlerless deer will influence where we are [five years down the road] more than anything.
"What we're faced with is in a good two-thirds of the state, deer populations have demonstrated an ability to produce more than the harvest can keep up with," he said. "What that brought on was mandatory antlerness harvest [before taking a buck]. To date that has proven to be the only successful way to manage the deer population.
"But there's enough resistance in the hunting community to [that requirement] that we haven't used it in three years – so harvest tends to lag behind productivity. That can hurt hunters because [too many deer] can damage the natural forage, and that combined with a hard winter can bring the deer population down undesirably, like we saw in 2008-09."
Any Doom and Gloom?
To the question of whether he can foresee any areas of his state having a large population decline or crash at some point, Pritzl said he's concerned about a couple things. One is forests getting older, which means a decline in deer productivity. "Certainly our northern forest can't carry the number of deer it did post-World War II, and we won't return to those days short of a catastrophic removal of trees." Tree-cutting doesn't occur as often anymore, he explained, which has resulted in aging forests and less-friendly deer habitat.
But there's still potential for a deer population decline in forested areas. "If we get four or five mild winters in a row, the herd [in forested areas] will get too high," he said. "That will aggravate how hard it will crash if we [then] get bad winter conditions – but the term 'crash' would be an overstatement."
Another thing Pritzl is keeping an eye on is Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). Looking far out, he said he doesn't know what CWD has in store for the southern third of his state. "Now it's still relatively low in occurrence, but if the deer population is carried too high [in the future], that promotes the spread and prevalence of the disease. So if the deer population is allowed to explode, that could result in a crash – but that's purely speculation. Our goal is to prevent that from ever happening."