AN EARLY analysis of the 2011 deer seasons shows that, without a doubt, the deer herd is recovering following two mild winters and three seasons of buck-only hunting throughout much of Vilas, Oneida and Forest counties.
Deer hunters looking for bucks had a slightly better season this year, but a high antlerless harvest will curb herd growth in 2012. --STAFF PHOTO
There’s ample proof of that, including positive reports from archers who report seeing more deer activity overall and a telltale increase in the buck harvest during the nine-day gun season — the most accurate indicator of changing population trends.
But aside from being better than a year ago, the deer herd outside residential areas isn’t all that spectacular. And that’s why so many deer hunters continue to speak out against the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its decision to sell more than 15,000 antlerless deer tags in units 36, 37 and 38 this year.
The dilemma facing biologists is that the herd is growing very fast in residential areas where hunting pressure is light, so the sale of a bunch of doe tags doesn’t solve the problem. Hunters usually fill those tags on public lands where deer numbers can’t sustain the harvest.
Though not politically feasible in the eyes of lawmakers thus far, one solution would be curbing residential deer feeding — which homeowners can do the year around. Hunters who want to use bait can only do so during the fall seasons, and they are hard-pressed to attract deer that have become dependent on residential feeders.
The bigger problem by far is that the DNR is hell-bent on keeping the herd at or near management goals, which wasn’t the case during the heydays of Wisconsin deer hunting 10 to 12 years ago. And it’s a lot bigger issue than whether the DNR can accurately count deer.
Using Unit 38 as an example, the DNR is managing the herd for an overwinter population of 20 deer per square mile of deer range. There are 16 forties in a square mile of land (a section). So the goal in Unit 38 is to have 1.2 deer per 40 acres of deer range.
As one hunter put it, 1.2 deer per 40 acres isn’t enough for wolf bait. It certainly isn’t anything to brag about, and it wouldn’t help the sale of a private hunting forty if you claimed to have that kind of deer herd on your land.
It’s pretty easy to believe that we have reached that population goal in many areas. But most hunters I’ve spoken with since the early archery and gun deer seasons ended don’t support all the antlerless tags the DNR must issue to keep the herd at that dismal level.
Hunters were finally starting to see some deer in the forest areas of Units 36, 37 and 38 this year, but future growth of the herd will be stymied with the harvest of thousands of antlerless deer. And that’s the way the DNR intended it, hoping that hunters would take one doe or fawn for every buck harvested to keep herd growth in check.
With another mild winter and everything else being the same, the DNR is likely to issue thousands of antlerless tags next fall in Units 34, 35 and maybe even 39 — units that were still buck-only this year. Once again, the reason is a dismal management goal of 20 deer per square mile.
The hunters I’ve heard from are frustrated by the few deer they saw during this year’s nine-day gun season.
All I can say is, get used to it. This is the deer management future that’s in store for northern Wisconsin as long as overwinter goals remain low.
High numbers of bears, coyotes, wolves and other deer predators weren’t such a big deal 10 years ago when deer numbers were far above goal. Now every deer those predators take has a more noticeable impact on the herd.
I’ve never heard more discord among northern deer hunters than I?have the past two or three years. Not only are fewer bucks being harvested, but trophy buck numbers are way down from the good old days — likely the result of low deer numbers and the harvest of too many yearling bucks.
Just ask the deer hunters in Wisconsin’s farm country where quality deer management is being practiced. They are living the glory days of trophy buck hunting while the North Woods has lost much of its traditional big-buck appeal.
Some of that downturn was due to lost habitat with a lack of logging in the national forest. Combine that with an overharvest of antlerless deer and a bad winter here and there, and it’s not good for growing a deer herd. But logging will return soon, thanks to some big court victories, and the herd could rebound in many areas if we let it.
If we can’t manage to increase the overwinter goals and get a decent deer herd back, our destiny will be focusing more on scenery and the experience of hunting the big woods — public forests that stretch for hundreds of thousands of acres.
And that’s not all bad, except that northern deer hunters who lived in the ’80s and ’90s know we can have both — great scenery and better deer numbers.
We were spoiled once, you could say, and most want the good old days to return.