Wisconsin’s huge deer herd won’t generate a big harvest

(First published in the November 27, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Despite a “new era” that promised to put the fun back into deer hunting

Whitetail Deer Buck

Whitetail Deer Buck

Wisconsin gun-hunters in 2018 registered 247,614 deer, continuing a 10-year run of sub-275,000 harvests. Still, that’s more than the seating capacity of Lambeau Field, Camp Randall Stadium, Miller Park and Fiserv Forum combined.

Wisconsin hunters won’t see a fraction of the state’s 2 million-plus white-tailed deer during our nine-day firearms season that concludes Sunday, Dec. 1, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

     According to Department of Natural Resources biologists, the statewide deer herd heading into gun season exceeded 2 million, a probable record high. The agency isn’t expecting a record harvest this fall, however, or a top-10 finish.

     In fact, even a top-20 kill is unlikely. Wisconsin’s record firearms deer kill was 528,494 in 2000 when we had 694,714 licensed gun-hunters, an estimated 1.8 million deer, and near-perfect conditions for the November season that year: snow cover nearly statewide, near-normal temperatures, and few uncut cornfields.

     Gun-hunters killed over 400,000 deer in 1999, 2004 and 2007; and over 300,000 deer during 13 seasons between 1989 and 2008.

     Only three times in 20 deer seasons during that span did the gun-kill not exceed 300,000: 288,820 in 1992; 217,584 in 1993; and 292,513 in 1997.

     Much has changed in Wisconsin’s deer woods this century. For instance, 577,600 people held gun-deer licenses in 2018, which was 121,675 fewer than the record 699,275 in 1990. When the 2018 season ended after our one-week holiday hunt, gun-hunters had registered 247,614 deer, continuing a 10-year run of sub-275,000 harvests.

     Smaller gun kills aren’t just about fewer hunters, of course. We no longer have a four-day October gun-hunt, which killed 66,437 deer in 2000 even though it was neither statewide nor subject to earn-a-buck restrictions.

     Until 2014, Wisconsin also didn’t restrict hunters to specific counties for antlerless hunting, or make them choose public- or private-land tags. Our “new era of deer hunting” that began five years ago promised to put the fun back into deer hunting, but it eliminated gun-buck hunting in December, further reducing participation.

     Meanwhile, tactics have moved indoors. Many hunters seal themselves inside heated, noise-canceling shooting houses from Potosi to Peshtigo and Patzau to Paddock Lake, and rarely risk moving in daylight for fear of sending “their deer” fleeing past neighbors they no longer know.

     And deer drives? Forget it. That would mean work, and we’d rather sit and scoff on social media about the DNR’s 2 million deer estimate. But while we sneer at math we don’t grasp, consider this recent estimate: Wisconsin also has 5.83 million people. Can you picture that?

     Both estimates are scientific calculations, of course. If you insist on real numbers, consider last year’s nine-day gun season, which registered a kill of 219,715 deer (106,038 bucks, 113,677 antlerless).

     You’d need to fill Lambeau Field (81,400 capacity), Camp Randall Stadium (80,321), Miller Park (41,900) and the Fiserv Forum (17,500) to seat that many deer.

     Or look at the November 2018 gun-kill this way: If those 219,715 registered deer were spread evenly across the nine-day season, 6:30 a.m. till 4:30 p.m. daily, we shot 24,413 deer daily, or 2,441 per hour, or 41 per minute, or 0.68 deer per second.

     Then again, some folks prefer to ignore the real world, including a huge change in deer hunting: chronic wasting disease.

     As you probably heard, 49% of hunters polled in mid-October by Marquette University researchers thought CWD has stabilized in Wisconsin, 13% thought it was declining, and 9% don’t know. Only 30% knew CWD is increasing. In other words, roughly 70% of Wisconsin hunters are misinformed about CWD.

     That should make former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and current DNR Board vice-chairman Greg Kazmierski proud. They made denial and ignorance of CWD a core DNR mission from 2011 through 2018 during Gov. Scott Walker’s two terms.

     Change has been slow since Gov. Tony Evers took over in January, but at least the DNR now urges hunters to test deer for CWD.

     Well, sort of. Here’s how Evers’ DNR implored hunters in a recent press release: “Hunters who harvest adult deer are strongly encouraged to consider submitting a sample for testing.”

     DNR Secretary Preston Cole forgot to add, “pretty please.” (The DNR is ramping up its CWD surveillance testing in northern counties, including Marathon and Portage, with 24/7 sampling kiosks for harvested deer heads.)

     Cole should tell Wisconsinites to watch for sick deer, and remind them the public reported 634 sickly whitetails to the DNR the past 30 months. Not all those deer had CWD, but it’s no coincidence the six counties generating the most reports were in southwestern Wisconsin’s disease zone: Iowa County, 83; Sauk, 82; Dane, 40; Columbia, 29; Grant, 20; and Richland, 19.

     Cole should also share data from Daniel Barr, the pathology sciences supervisor at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Madison. Barr’s crews test thousands of deer’s lymph nodes and obexes for CWD each year, and will likely test over 20,000 deer this fall.

     The lab in 2018 confirmed CWD in 1,063 of 11,019 deer samples from 26 Wisconsin counties, or 9.6% positives. The seven worst counties were Iowa County with 397 CWD cases, followed by Richland, Sauk, Dane, Grant, Columbia, and Lafayette.

     Based on each county’s infection percentages, Barr also found that hunters in those 26 counties likely killed another 5,535 CWD-infected deer and fed the meat to themselves and their families without getting it tested. And based on those 26 counties’ prevalence rates, Barr estimates another 31,329 deer with CWD survived the 2018 hunting season.

     To reduce the chances of eating CWD-infected venison, Barr recommends boning out deer, and scrapping as much fat and connective tissues as possible to ensure you remove all lymph nodes, where disease-causing prions accumulate. (Find an online diagram at datcp.wi.gov, search for “venison CWD”). Also, don’t cut through the spinal column to remove the head for testing until you finish removing all meat. That means no more bone-in neck roasts.

     Yes, CWD has never been linked to a human prion disease, but so what? That doesn’t mean Wisconsin should pretend the disease isn’t harming our mismanaged, underhunted deer herd.

Patrick Durkin (@patrickdurkinoutdoors) is a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Contact [email protected].