Hunters, Not Biologists, Establish New Wisconsin Deer Population Goals

By author of Brow Tines and Backstrap

As deer hunters, we often find ourselves at odds with the agencies tasked with setting the regulations and bag limits we must abide by.

It would seem almost wrong, in fact, if a deer season were to go by without some level of frustration and angst being directed at the DNR or Fish and Game or (insert name of your managing agency here). Much of the time, that discourse has to do with the number of deer that hunters are – or aren't – seeing.

But what would happen if hunters, not state biologists, were allowed to determine whether deer population levels were too high or too low and the state agency would be required to establish management guidelines that reflect the public's wishes?

County Deer Advisory Council recommendations map for population goals. Well we're about to find out, because that's exactly the process Wisconsin has adopted. For better or worse.

Last week, the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board approved several deer management packages for the 2015 deer season, including population objectives for all 72 Wisconsin counties.

Those population objectives were not set by licensed wildlife biologists however. Instead, they were set by the hunters and landowners that live and hunt in each county.

In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hired Texas deer researcher James Kroll as the state's “deer czar” and tasked him with the job of providing a plan to the state for managing the state's whitetail population amidst considerable turmoil between hunters and the Wisconsin DNR over the handling of Chronic Wasting Disease, which was first discovered in wild Wisconsin whitetails in 2002.

As a result of that discovery, Wisconsin implemented a CWD response plan that included extensive population reductions in and around the impacted areas in an effort to contain the disease and slow its spread.

One of Kroll's recommendations was to create councils in each of the state's 72 counties comprised of residents, hunters and landowners. Those councils would meet to discuss deer management in their county and then provide a recommendation to the DNR regarding whether regulations should be designed to maintain, increase or decrease deer numbers in that county.

The councils began meeting late last summer and then provided their recommendations to the Natural Resources Board. Last week, the Board adopted all county council recommendations regarding population goals without alteration.

The recommendations would maintain deer populations in 40 units, increase the population in 34 and decrease deer numbers in six (some counties contain two zone types – thus the total is greater than 72). The population goals will remain in effect for a period of three years.

Amongst those counties recommending a growth in deer numbers were nine that have either tested positive for CWD or border a county that has.

CWD is always fatal. There is no known cure. Once in an area, the prions that cause the disease can collect in the environement and have proven to be impervious to every method of destruction attempted – including fire, severe cold, radiation and chemicals.

CWD is a communicable disease, meaning it can spread easily from one deer to another, making for a nightmarish scenario in areas of high deer density according to wildlife researchers.

“One has to question the rationale behind recommending an increase in the deer herd when the spread of a deadly disease occurs more quickly at higher deer densities,” DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp wrote in a memo to the DNR’s board. “While the concerns are many, I would like to allow the department, (the advisory committees) and the public to work within the recommendations and address the challenges together.”

The adoption of the advisory council recommendations on deer population levels comes almost exactly one year after the Wisconsin DNR unveiled the results of CWD prevalence testing from 2013.

The results were sobering.

One in four adult bucks were believed to have the deadly disease in western Dane and Iowa counties, the area where CWD was first discovered in Wisconsin. That's more than double the rate of infection at the time of discovery.

Infection rate of adult does was about 10 percent, climbing from roughly 2 percent when discovered in 2002.

The long-term trends, according to the data, are pretty clear: bucks are contracting CWD at a higher rate than does and adult deer are more likely to have CWD than young deer.

And this rapid expansion of the disease has occurred in the midst of substantial population reduction efforts such as increased bag limits, earn-a-buck regulations and extended hunting season dates.

While those efforts were moderately successful at reducing deer numbers in the area at first, the efforts have been all but abandoned as hunter discontent has steadily increased.

In southern Wisconsin, where prevalence rates were highest, the new population goals would maintain current deer numbers without any further reductions. In the central and northern reaches of the state, the councils recommended increasing deer numbers, including several counties where CWD has been confirmed.

There's no question that hunters and state wildlife agencies will need to work together to ensure the future of deer and deer hunting in Wisconsin.

But are citizen-led advisory councils that determine population goals a sound solution?

Time will tell.