One of North America’s most effective deer management techniques was kicked to the curb yesterday when Wisconsin lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to prohibit state deer managers to use earn-a-buck regulations for future deer seasons. The state had used the regulations on and off for most of the past decade. The regulation forced hunters to bag and register an antlerless deer before "earning" the right to use their antlered buck tags. In Wisconsin, hunters are allowed to shoot one buck with a bow and one with a firearm.
Many hunters are calling the end of EAB a victory, as it was a loud contingent that leaned on lawmakers to repeal the regulation. Having lived in Wisconsin my entire life, I’ve seen how this regulation has divided the hunting community.
As a deer hunter, I will admit that EAB was a tough pill to swallow. In fact, I likely have a bigger sob story than anyone else can provide. I can’t recall the exact year, I believe it was 2001, but my wife Tracy and I were bowhunting on a tract of private land in October. It was an EAB season, and Tracy had yet to bag her doe. Tracy was seated beside a large boulder, on the ground, in a makeshift blind she had built earlier that afternoon. I was perched in a tree stand about 200 yards away. I couldn’t see her, but I could see the boulder.
At about 5 p.m., an absolutely huge buck appeared in the meadow near Tracy’s hideout. I grabbed my binoculars and sat in stunned silence. This buck was incredible. I watched him for at least 10 minutes and wondered if Tracy did, in fact, see him. If I were to guess, I’d say he was easily 150 inches.
The buck eventually walked off, and darkness settled upon the landscape. I climbed from my stand and walked to Tracy’s blind. When I arrived, she was standing beside the boulder, clutching on to it as if she was having a hard time standing. She was visibly shaken.
"Did you see that buck?" I gasped.
"You mean the giant 9-pointer that was standing right THERE for 10 minutes?" she blurted out while pointing to a spot just 10 yards in front of the boulder. "The same buck that I came to full draw on twice — put my sight pin on his chest — and let down just so I could tell you that I COULD have shot him? Yes, I saw him. I feel like I’m going to puke."
That was 10 seasons ago, yet it remains as the one and only antlered buck that Tracy could have shot with her bow.
Bitter pill, indeed. However, that story illustrates my desires as a hunter. As someone who understands the delicate balance between deer densities and habitat regeneration, I understand that EAB has been the only tool Wisconsin managers have used to successfully reduce deer populations enough to make a difference. They started in the 1980s by offering liberal antlerless deer tags. It didn’t work. When given the choice, hunters, as a whole, shot more bucks. Then, concurrently with EAB, managers tried other options like unlimited doe tags and special doe-only hunts in October and December. Hunters revolted against the October hunts because they viewed them as cumbersome to the upcoming rut. By December, most guys had enough venison in the freezer, and the thought of shooting deer just to donate them to food pantries wasn’t enough to keep them motivated as a group.
In the end, nothing has worked on a statewide level as effectively as EAB. And now it’s gone with the stroke of a political pen. And therein lies the rub. Whether you liked EAB or loathed it, what has now happened is that a key tool to Wisconsin’s deer management program has been taken out of the scientific community and placed into the hands of politicians and special-interest groups. Not a good move, in my opinion. You don’t have to think too long or hard to envision where this could lead us in the future.
That’s how I see it. What are your thoughts?