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Wisconsin's Deer Management War – Part 1

Wisconsin's Deer Management War – Part 1
Wisconsin has one of the richest deer hunting cultures in the country. Though the "War on Deer Management" burns hotter than ever, a resolution to the decline in harvests is truly what needs the most attention. Photo by Eric Michel.

Passionate, impactful and tradition are all words that describe the deer hunting culture in the Badger State of Wisconsin. Deer hunting is much more than just a hobby in this state. It brings family and friends together to share and continue rich traditions. Not to mention that for many small towns in Wisconsin, deer hunting is the economic lifeline they depend on to keep their small, family-owned businesses running, and a roof over their heads.

Whether you hunt in Wisconsin or not, you likely have seen the headlines after what looks like a dismal gun season. For the first time since the 1980s, the total gun harvest fell below 200,000. However, the 2014 deer season is not the first deer season in recent memory that has had Wisconsin hunters worried about deer management. Deer management has become such a hot topic in the state that Governor Scott Walker appointed a “Deer Trustee” to oversee that state’s management. Two years ago, the Trustee’s recommendations were first put into action. This season, it seems as if many hunters in Wisconsin have simply had enough.

However, before anyone starts to draw conclusions, we thought it was appropriate to make sure that all the factual information is recapped in a single document (this article). Then, in “Part 2” of the series, we will piece together some of the causes that may be affecting the deer numbers in Wisconsin, and recommendations on how to begin to correct them.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Deer harvest in 2014 was the lowest it has been in 32 years, and license sales were the lowest since 1978. There is likely some correlation between the two, as deer numbers have been “perceived” to be declining for nearly a decade. However, it is the decline in license sales that is not only eye opening but scary for the deer hunting tradition in Wisconsin. Most hunters are already aware that our non-stop lifestyles are leading to the recruitment of fewer new hunters, so losing previously licensed hunters is not good for the already aging hunting population.

Y2K (2000), a year in which many feared technologies would crash and the world could come to a grinding halt. However, it was a record breaking year in the Badger State where more than 615,000 deer were harvested and success rates topped an unprecedented 64 percent. In gun season alone, fewer than 695,000 hunters took around 529,000 deer which equates to a 76 percent success rate. Many hunters considered this the “heyday” of deer hunting in Wisconsin and the 2000 season immediately became the year in which to compare all other years against.

Fast forward to 2014, and the numbers aren’t just down, they are flat out alarming and why this article series is being put together. The entire season results aren’t in yet so we will focus on the firearm season. There were just over 608,000 gun license sales in 2014 which is down over 86,000 from the 2000 hunting season. This dramatic decrease in license sales is not something to take lightly. Total harvest is the number being talked about by many Wisconsin hunters. Harvest dropped below 200,000 to 191,550, the lowest harvest since 1982. Compare this to the 2000 hunting season, when there were more than 529,000 deer taken and you can understand why there is such a heated debate about deer management in the state.

But you have to look deeper than the surface of the numbers to truly comprehend what is going on with Wisconsin’s deer hunting. Yes, there is no doubt that hunter numbers are declining and this decline is likely caused by multiple factors. One reason likely being the deer hunting experience itself. So why is that hunting experience being perceived as poor? On the surface, it would seem that it is simply a deer population issue. If only it were that simple.

Wisconsins Deer Management
Though archery license sales have grown steadily until 2014, gun hunter numbers still dominate the state. Total gun harvest is typically 3-4 times that of archery. (Photo by Jeremy Flinn)

A Rich History

Wisconsin has by far one of the richest deer hunting cultures in America, despite everything that Wisconsin hunters have experienced over the past couple of decades. Aside from a few years of fluctuation, 1980-1991 saw a steady climb in overall harvest peaking around 420,000 total deer harvested in 1991. Deer hunting was strong in the state, and a nearly 18 percent increase in license sales showed just that, especially in archery where license sales rose nearly 40 percent. During the 1991 deer season, hunter success hit a remarkable 47 percent. That meant almost half of the hunters placed their tag on a deer.

But two years later in 1993, hunters would not be singing the same tune. Though license sales dropped by nearly 15,000, total harvest dropped ten times that (150,000). The Wisconsin DNR noted in 1993 that many of the pre-hunt populations were below goal. That was a tough pill to swallow for many Wisconsin hunters, yet over the next seven years hunter numbers would fluctuate in an overall positive direction peaking at 950,000-plus in the year 2000. Accordingly, harvests also peaked at 615,293 that same year … more than two times as many deer as were harvested seven years before. Sure, there were 75,000 more hunters in the woods during the 2000 hunting season, but that hardly explains the nearly 350,000 increase in harvest. There was likely a myriad of things that explains this increase in harvest. For example, there were many hunting regulation changes including special gun seasons, antlerless only seasons, and the infamous Earn-A-Buck (EAB) regulations that were implemented. These changes in hunting regulations coupled with multiple mild winters which allowed for less winter induced deer mortality likely allowed deer populations in many Deer Management Units (DMUs) to be higher than ever for the 2000 hunting season. This was truly the “heyday” of Wisconsin deer hunting. But what goes up, must come down.

We see it time and time again; the giants always fall the hardest, and Wisconsin deer hunting was no exception. Deer hunting in Wisconsin was forever changed just two years after their epic deer season when hunters heard a phrase that would ring in their ears for well over a decade – Chronic Wasting Disease. In 2002, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) was discovered in the state, and the DNR implemented a 14-week rifle season and eradication strategy in CWD areas to combat the always fatal disease.

Over the next two seasons, harvest would jump up again, but not necessarily due to an increase in deer numbers. The Wisconsin DNR, in an effort to contain CWD, implemented Earn-A-Buck (EAB) and “No Bag Limits” in CWD Management Zones. This harvest freedom may have seemed a dream come true for many hunters, but it would quickly become a nightmare.In 2008, a slight concern in deer numbers was realized, and the DNR limited gun season to 23 days and implemented EAB in only 57 of the 130 DMUs. Though down slightly since its peak, license sales remained strong, around 900,000. However, 2009 would prove to be a slippery slope, and although license sales remained consistent, harvest numbers dropped to around 350,000 after hovering around half a million for several years. At 36.5 percent, 2009 had the lowest season success rate in 16 years. A 50-percent success rate would long be something of the past for Wisconsin deer hunters. This was when many remember the heated deer debates and Governor Walker’s intervention into the state’s deer management.


Little would change in harvest numbers over the next three years and hunter numbers stayed strong. But dramatic changes were taking place on the regulation side. From northern DMUs going to buck only, to the complete elimination of October antlerless only gun hunts, the race was on to stop the bleeding.

Then in 2013, after things seemed to be stabilized, the harvest began to decline again. Not significantly, but at this point any fluctuation has Badger State hunters ready to pounce. All this leads to where we sit today, finishing up the 2014 season.

A 60,000 deer decrease in harvest during the firearm season, nearly a 25 percent decrease from the year before, has hunters fed up. Fingers are pointing and declarations are being made. It’s time for change.

Although it may be time for a change in the Badger State, we first need to examine all of the possibilities of what might have caused the decrease in deer harvest. The explanation to the recent decline in harvest is not exclusively caused by a decrease in deer numbers, but is likely a result of multiple changes occurring over the past 30 years. For example, did weather conditions such as warm temperatures and fog on opening gun weekend affect the total harvest, as opening weekend is likely the two most hunted days of the season? And then there are the predators. Have predator populations become so high that they are dramatically affecting the deer population? Obviously predators influence the deer population, but to what extent? We also need to consider where deer management in Wisconsin has been, where it is, and where it is going.

We are sure that this article has probably increased the blood pressure for many of you, but maybe we all just need to take a deep breath and relax. We know that deer harvest can have huge fluctuations from year to year. For example, in 1993 harvest dropped dramatically from the previous year. Yet two years later in 1995, with few changes in hunting regulations and license sales, there was a record harvest. Maybe relaxing is what we all need. After all, it seems to be working out pretty good for the Packers.

After reading this article you are probably thinking to yourself that the future of deer hunting in Wisconsin is pretty bleak. However, there is always a silver lining; you just have to find it. Although harvest is down, hunters are still harvesting more deer than in the early 1980s and doing so with almost 30,000 fewer hunters in 2014, which equates to higher success rates. This means that as a hunter if you are willing to put in some time and effort, you still have a better chance to harvest a deer now than you did in the 1980s.

Overall, there are many pieces of the puzzle to put together, and that’s exactly the intention for Part 2 of this series. We will continue to lay out the facts and the research, as well as give our own professional opinions and theories as to what is happening. After all, the facts need to be laid out before we can make an educated conclusion.

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