Once all of the harvest numbers were in after last fall's 9-day gun deer hunt, the Department of Natural Resources put out the harvest numbers as they received them. Those numbers showed a 30 percent increase in buck harvest in the Northern Forest Zone. Many hunters felt those numbers could not possibly be right.
The Lakeland Times received numerous phone calls and emails from hunters and residents saying rumors were flying about misrepresented harvest information. Some said they suspected hunters may have been registering does as bucks simply to have some meat in the freezer. Others said deer were registered that were not killed to inflate estimated herd population numbers in hopes of the area receiving doe tags in the near future. In-person registration stations are now a thing of the past and, to be sure, it is much easier for an unscrupulous hunter to register deer in a fraudulent manner. Some wondered whether the state should go back to in-person registration stations.
In response to these calls and emails, The Times issued an open records request to the DNR for names and contact information of hunters from Oneida and Vilas counties who registered a deer during the hunting season. Over 100 hunters responded to the 200 surveys mailed out and another 100-plus returned surveys which were handed out at various businesses throughout the Northwoods. In those 228 surveys, the numbers showed the DNR uptick of 30 percent in buck harvest was likely accurate, based on how respondents answered questions about the 2016 hunt as opposed to the 2015 hunt. Those results were previously printed in The Times.
An online survey was also available for the public. In total 292 responses came in from that survey. Of those respondents, only 56 said they were able to harvest a buck in 2016, while 2015 results were almost the same with 58 hunters reporting harvesting a buck. When asked if they saw more or fewer deer in 2016 than 2015, 199 hunters said they saw fewer deer in last year's hunt than the prior year. Ninety-three reported seeing more. This is in contrast to the mailed and handed-out surveys, which did back up the 30 percent increase reported by the DNR.
Predator reports were also somewhat different in the online surveys. Over 58 percent of hunters completing the online survey reported they saw no predators during their hunt. Only 107 survey-takers answered question five, which asked how many of each predator - wolves, coyotes, bobcats, bears or mountain lions - they saw while hunting, which was just over 60 percent of those who reported seeing predators. The most numerous predators reported from these surveys, by far, were wolves, with well over 200 reported. Coyotes were a close second. Those two predators were also the most reported in the mailed and handed-out surveys, although more coyotes were seen by those hunters.
Some responses were very similar across all of the surveys. One of those had to do with how hunters felt about the DNR reporting a 30 percent increase in buck harvest. Over 78 percent of respondents in the online surveys did not agree this could be possible, based on their hunting experience. When asked about their experience in 2016, over 70 percent rated it poor to very poor.
Another question asked what hunters felt was affecting deer populations in the Northern Forest Zone. Wolves were blamed by over 43 percent of survey respondents as the main influencer keeping populations down. Three percent felt it was bears, with the same amount listing lack of logging or forest management as the issue. Over 13 percent of online survey takers felt over-harvest was to blame and just over 8 percent said the ban on feeding and baiting was the issue. Twenty-eight percent of the people listed other reason which included harsh winters, too many predators, baiting turning deer nocturnal, too many doe tags and poachers or those harvesting, but not registering, their deer.
Online survey respondents were largely in favor of returning to the in-person registration stations, also. One-hundred-and-eighty-six hunters favored the return to those stations versus 106 who preferred the convenience of phone registration.
As with the other surveys, almost all hunters felt there were at least ample, if not an overkill number, of opportunities to harvest a deer with the current season structure. When asked if those hunters would favor a one buck tag only for all seasons, slightly over 59 percent said they would be in favor of such a regulation.
Many hunters also had comments and suggestions outside of the questions posed in the survey. All of those comments will be published here in the Outdoors section of The Lakeland Times over the next few weeks.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at email@example.com.