Editors Blog

Wisconsin Headed for Deer Season Hangover

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Scenes like this have disappeared across much of Wisconsin. Will the Badger State’s deer herd rebound?

With another gun-deer season in the books in Wisconsin, it appears the once-hyped Deer Czar cure-all was indeed much ado about nothing. It’s been nearly three years since politicians hired out-of-state, private-sector deer managers to implement a program aimed at waylaying the complaints of deer hunters who believed the state was heading in the wrong direction. Translation: Hunters then said they were seeing fewer and fewer deer and, doggone it, someone had better do something about it.

The end result has been a 25% reduction in overall deer harvested in the three years that have since passed.

Of course, much of the decline in deer harvest can be directly attributed to things beyond any manager’s control. First on that list: the weather. What is not known is what will happen once Mother Nature relinquishes her death grip — even just slightly — and allows the Badger State to again experience consecutive mild winters. That won’t happen this year, or probably next, so no one’s really worrying about it. It will, however, become a major issue and litmus test of sorts for the state’s new way of doing business. Decades of proven tactics, including deer density estimates and specific regional goals will be forgotten memories by next year.

The recently concluded 9-day firearms season’s stats aren’t in yet, but it is shaping up to be another stinker in terms of sheer numbers. After the high-flying 1990s and early 2000s, Wisconsin has seen its overall deer harvest figures drop down to the reality levels we saw in the 1970s. I’m guessing this year’s overall harvest will be about 275,000 deer (total, all seasons), which is a far cry from the dozen or so seasons we harvested 450,000+ in those good, old days. Those inflated harvests were, of course, never to be used as a barometer of anything sustainable. However, an entire generation of hunters grew up expecting as much. I’m very curious as to where all of their misplaced frustrations will be hurled when the final numbers come in.

Can’t blame the DNR biologists anymore.

In one span (from 1998 to 2007) gun-hunters here enjoyed a 23% success rate on bucks, and a 40+% success rate on does. Today, only 16% of gun-hunters harvest a buck, while 24% harvest a doe. But those are statewide statistics. The success rates for Up North areas (like where I grew up hunting in Ashland and Bayfield counties) are in the single digits.

Oof.

The reasons for the decline in harvest rates are many, but hinge primarily on severe winter conditions; degraded over-winter habitat; over-harvesting of antlerless deer in some areas; and increased competition from predators, namely wolves and black bears, in northern areas.

Despite all of this apparent bad news, there are many reasons to rejoice. Wisconsin is still home to more than 600,000 gun-hunters. That’s proof enough that you don’t have to get your hands bloody to come back to the woods in search of a deer each and every year.