Bless their hearts for trying, but a Wisconsin county’s proposed ban on buck hunting stands about as much chance of working as New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal to ban large soft drinks.
The deer hunting controversy arose last week when a 6-member council of deer enthusiasts proposed a doe-only season this year for Waupaca County, Wisconsin. Located in the east-central part of the state (70 miles west of Green Bay), Waupaca is renowned for high deer densities (at one point in the early 2000s, some pockets harbored more than 100 deer per square mile) and lots of deer hunters. County deer hunters routinely harvested more than 10,000 deer per year, with high-water marks exceeding 14,000. Look at this way: Waupaca County’s annual deer harvests rank at or above the averages for 10 other states: Connecticut, Delaware, Arizona, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.
One more thing to chew on: Waupaca County covers just 765 square miles, but it is the perfect mix of edge habitat for whitetails. The southern part of the county features farmland, lakes, streams and rivers. The northern part of the county is big woods and dairy farmland.
All those deer have wreaked havoc on the county’s forests (98 percent private property). Comprised mostly of oak, maple and aspen, native forests are now choked with invasive understory (bush honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, glossy buckthorn, etc). It’s nearly impossible for landowners to grow native trees due to the high deer densities. Farm-crop losses have also been high. Amazingly, the county’s deer herd is historically prolific, with average fawn recruitment rates exceeding 1.3 during many of the mild-weather years we’ve had since the early 1990s. Even more amazing, despite record deer populations, the county has been one of the nation’s top producers of Pope-and-Young class whitetails. In fact, the county’s production of record-class bucks is so storied that the Village of Iola proclaimed the area as “The Bowhunting Capitol of the World” shortly after PSE Archery founder Pete Shepley hunted here in 1968.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources identified the county’s deer problem more than 30 years ago and tried to fix it via generous antlerless deer tag allocations, extended seasons and even a few years of Earn-a-Buck regulations about 10 years ago. Although many hunters stepped to the plate and embraced the extra hunting opportunities, many did not — namely old-school “no-doe” hunters and owners of large hunting parcels.
I know all too well about Waupaca County’s woes, because that’s where Deer & Deer Hunting is headquartered (Iola, Wisconsin), and I’ve lived here for 22 years.
The county’s deer advisory committee (a byproduct of Governor Scott Walker’s dismantling of the WDNR’s science-based deer management approach in 2012) is tasked with the unenviable job of setting harvest goals. To the committee’s credit, they recognize that 80 deer per square mile is more than double what a healthy habitat can sustain. So they crunched the numbers and realized that county hunters would have to bag at least 14,000 does this year alone to bring the county’s herd (estimated to balloon to more than 60,000 head by this September’s bowhunting opener) just to keep pace. Since Gov. Walker took away the state’s Earn-a-Buck tool several years ago in response to a vocal minority of hunters who wanted an end to the antlerless slaughter, the council was left to that lone option — banning buck hunting altogether — in an attempt to get hunters to focus completely on herd reduction.
Again, nice thought, but it won’t happen. Ever.
Here’s the thing: Despite posting five-digit deer harvests numerous times over the years, Waupaca County hunters’ high-water mark for antlerless deer is about 8,000. However, those high doe harvests came when hunters were in a collective woods with 60, 70 …even 100 … deer per square mile (healthy habitat shouldn’t have more than 35 dpsm). To ask them to repeat that kind of harvest on a smaller herd will — as I correctly predicted in 1996 — have these locals screaming that we’ve completely eradicated the herd. Therein lies the problem: For the most part, you’re dealing with a regional hunting base that has never hunted a deer herd that’s been remotely close to biological goal in their lifetime. On top of that, you’re asking guys and gals who have paid upwards of $5,000 an acre for hunting land (no typo) to go out there, plant their food plots, buy bows, arrows, treestands, etc., and pass up that 150-inch buck when comes strolling by on Sept. 17 (bow opener) or Nov. 19 (gun opener).
But wait, it gets even better. In addition to Gov. Walker’s elimination of 500 DNR workers, including all of the wildlife research biologist positions, the state has done away with mandatory in-person deer registration. Wisconsin’s in-person deer registration was one of the last bastions of accurate harvest reporting. Today, like a lot of other states, Wisconsin trusts hunters to call in their harvests. Prediction #1: If the doe-only season somehow goes through, fed-up hunters will miraculously meet the harvest quota (and secure a buck season next year) by lying through their teeth and calling in “doe harvests” that never happened.
Prediction #2: With no bucks being allowed in Waupaca County, we will see record buck harvests in the neighboring counties of Waushara, Portage and Shawano where buck-hunting will still be allowed. With phone-in registration, who’s ever going to possibly know where you killed that buck?
I’d like to think that all deer hunters are responsible and law-abiding, but I can see how the fist-to-the-table approach messes with people’s lives to the point where they will skirt the law when pushed into a corner. What’s the solution? Bring back Earn-a-Buck is an obvious option. If EAB was brought back, the county should incentivize hunters by providing extra buck tags for hunters who kill more antlerless deer. Would it work in creating a massive herd reduction? Probably not, because the train has already left the station due to the now lax reporting process.
A better option, in my view, is for Waupaca County — and any other region in the country with overprescribed deer herds — to delist antlerless deer altogether. That’s right, unclassify the white-tailed doe as a game species and make it fair game, without limits, year-round. This is a crisis, isn’t it? Well, then treat it like one. Stop charging hunters for doe tags and stop worrying about a few bucks being killed here and there.
Put deer on the same level as rats. Yeah, that’s a sobering thought.