It’s no secret that many hunters across the state, and most notably in the north, claim there just aren’t as many deer as there used to be.
Whatever the mechanics are behind it, deer harvest numbers generally climbed over several decades before dropping in recent years.
Record kills peak in 2000
Record kills became a sort of norm as deer hunting progressed through the 1980s and 90s. A gun season harvest of 166, 673 in 1981 broke the 1978 record of 150,845 and was the first of five straight record harvests culminating in 1985 when 274,302 deer were taken.
The gun harvest topped 300,000 for the first time in 1989, meaning a new record harvest was set six times during the 1980s. 1990 saw that record fall once again, and 1991 saw a third consecutive record harvest – 350,040 deer.
The gun harvest dipped to 288,820 deer in 1992, but that was still the fourth highest on record at the time. The 1993 season saw a number of deer management units that were bucks-only, a drop in license sales, and a harvest of 217,584.
But the gun harvest climbed back up. In 1994, it topped 300,000 and in 1995 a harvest of 398,002 broke the record set four years earlier.
The 1990s saw its fourth record-breaking harvest in 1999, when gun hunters took 402,204 deer. As big as that number sounds, it was easily eclipsed the following season.
In 2000, gun deer harvest topped the half-million mark. Gun hunters took 528,494 deer – a record that still stands today.
From 2001-08 the gun deer harvest ranged from a low of 317,888 in 2002 to a high of 413,794 in 2004 (license sales saw a sharp decline in 2002 after the discovery of chronic wasting disease in wild deer).
In the four seasons since the 2008 season, the statewide gun deer harvest has been fewer than 300,000 deer every year. 2013 would be the fifth year, and preliminary numbers indicate that the total gun harvest will come in lower than 2012s.
Since 1989 there have been only three other seasons in which Wisconsin gun hunters tagged fewer than 300,000 deer.
Gun deer harvests for the 15 seasons prior to 2013:
Year Gun harvest
2012 273, 295
Ups and downs
Examining the state’s numbers from gun harvests over the past 30-40 years, the trend was to see dips in the harvest followed shortly by upturns.
For instance, the then-record harvest of 350,040 in 1991 was followed by two relatively down years, but the harvest took a big jump in 1994 and the record was broken again in 1995, suggesting that the deer herd rebuilt quickly.
Even in the wake of 2000s half-million-plus harvest, hunters tagged more than 300,000 deer in each of the next three seasons, and more than 400,000 in 2004.
Since the 2008 season, the gun harvest total has dipped to fewer than 300,000 deer and stayed relatively stagnant.
The state provided these area numbers by deer management unit going back to 2006.
Gun harvest trends, 2006-12, in area DMUs 35, 36 and 37:
Year 35 36 37
2006 2,035 2,597 1,765
2007 1,573 2,565 2,387
2008 595 1,485 1,395
2009 358 399 761
2010 465 571 532
2011 720 1,625 1,390
2012 834 702 890
Numbers by DMU for 2013 are not available yet, but the state did release preliminary county-by-county numbers after the regular nine-day gun season.
Oneida County hunters registered 1,505 bucks and 792 antlerless deer for a total of 2,297. The numbers represent an overall decline of 14 percent compared to last year.
Vilas County registrations totaled 1,652 deer; 1,113 bucks and 539 antlerless. While most area counties saw a decrease, Vilas County saw its harvest increase by 11 percent over 2012. The antlerless harvest was up 124 percent with the availability of more antlerless tags. The buck harvest was down 11 percent.
Iron County registrations totaled 438. Of these, 341 were bucks and 97 were antlerless deer. The total was down 38 percent from a year ago.
Seasons aren’t always directly comparable due to fluctuations in hunter numbers, available antlerless tags and other variables, but the trend has been toward fewer deer.
Answers not easy
Northern hunters have been speaking out on the issue of fewer deer and seeking answers. Answers that sometimes seem as elusive as the deer themselves.
At the DNR’s annual deer hunter forum this past spring wildlife staff supervisor Chuck McCullough alluded to the recent trend in which deer herd numbers aren’t bouncing back like they used to.
“If it was 2000, and we’d have had the mild winters we’ve had the last couple of years ... we’d see larger jumps in deer herds ... and it hasn’t happened,” McCullough said, noting that the 2012 buck harvest should have climbed, not dropped as it did, in the north.
“It was an early season, it was after a mild winter ... there should have been a bigger buck kill, if everything else was equal,” he said.
The contributing factors weren’t clear, and wildlife managers recommended fewer antlerless tags in most northern DMUs.
“Our deer are not behaving the way they used to be,” Mccullough said. “Predators? Habitat? Who knows. What we’re seeing is the result. We don’t know the ‘why,’ we just know the ‘what.’ So we’re going to be more careful because of that ‘what.’”
Tim Van Deelen, a professor in the department of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology at UW-Madison spoke on the topic of deer management at last month’s Science on Tap in Minocqua. Wolves were part of the discussion.
It’s no secret that many believe there is a correlation between a rising wolf population and a declining deer herd in the north.
Van Deelen noted mortality studies done in collaboration with the DNR, and said the number of northern deer taken by wolves is “relatively small.”
He said about one in 20 deer die from a wolf encounter during years with a normal winter and one in about 30 when the winter is mild, adding that hunters account for about one in five of all deer mortalities.
Van Deelen was quick to point out that the numbers, and hunter perception, can vary from one locale to another.
“For most of us, for most of you, your perception of the deer population trend is what you’re seeing under your tree stand, and what’s going on at the deer management level is only distantly related for many of us to what’s happening under our tree stands,” Van Deelen said.
A DNR fawn mortality study revealed predator impact on fawns in the north.
Results from the first two years of the study indicated that most fawn mortality occurs by the end of August, and is mostly due to predation.
Survival to 9-10 months was about 62 percent in eastern farmland (Shiocton area) fawns and just 35 percent in the northern (Winter area) fawns.
The Winter area fawns were found to have been killed by predators 62 percent of the time. Fawns in the Shiocton area had a 41 percent likelihood of dying as a result of predation.
In addition to wolves, coyotes, bears and bobcats prey on deer.
“Frankly, science is the easy part,” Van Deelen commented on deer management at November’s Science on Tap.
Van Deelen further touches on the “easy part” and hunter expectations in a comprehensive article titled “The Science of Deer Harvest Management” (Deer & Deer Hunting, January 2014).
Much of the article is pure science, devoted to arriving at conclusions about sustainable harvest and population stability, complete with talk of bell curves and visual aids. But Van Deelen also touches on the sometimes adversarial relationship between hunters and wildlife managers.
He notes that complaints “from some stakeholders” led to Gov. Walker appointing a trustee to review the state’s deer management practices.
Van Deelen also goes on to say he has “grown frustrated that the confrontations between managers and some hunter groups never seems to progress beyond demands for more deer and attacks on the character and competence of managers.”
Van Deelen goes on to note that some hunter expectations are based on the historically high deer densities of the 1990s.
Many variables can affect deer numbers. Changing habitat, specifically maturing forests, has been brought up by researchers. UW researchers doing a study on the decline of snowshoe hares have noted fewer young, regenerating forests which also provide browse for deer.
Others have noted a succession to older maples which replace aspen and birch.
Hunters who have spent enough years in the woods have noted the changes themselves. In some areas, mixed woods have been cut and replanted with pine. There are fewer “popple slashings” on the landscape.
Some note that deer a relatively abundant on small tracts with good habitat, often private. Others note scarcity where wolf tracks are commonplace.
A large number of hunters think northern units should have very-low or zero antlerlesss quotas to put deer back on the range. Managers have adjusted population goals upward in some northern DMUs, which will lower antlerless quotas.
Were the 1990s a perfect storm of factors leading to high deer densities? Was it an anomaly or something sustainable if managers are more conservative and/or predator numbers are managed more aggressively?
What have you seen? Feel free to share your thoughts and opinions with us.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.