Wisconsin wildlife officials should scrap local deer population goals, let landowners hold mini-hunts on their property and establish better connections with the public, Gov. Scott Walker’s deer trustee wrote in a report released Tuesday.
Texas researcher James Kroll’s 136-page study focuses largely on the DNR’s shortcomings but takes hunters to task too, saying they expect the agency to maintain a herd so large the landscape can’t support it. His plan offers the two sides a chance to compromise and save Wisconsin's hunting traditions from disappearing, he said.
“What this plan represents is a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It’s a reset button,” Kroll told The Lakeland Times in an interview after the report was released.
His report recommends that the DNR make a final decision on baiting outside of chronic wasting disease-management zones. He noted that hunters at town hall meetings expressed concerns that baiting creates public-land conflicts and deer that are increasingly nocturnal.
Ben Loma, a Wisconsin Conservation Congress delegate from Oneida County, doesn’t think that most hunters are attached to baiting.
“They’re doing it because their neighbor is baiting,” said Loma, who hopes the DNR addresses the issue once and for all.
He also expressed concern about the growing wolf populatioon, an issue Kroll addressed in his report.
He recommends managing wolves to a level acceptable to society, rather than establishing “a goal to sustain some specific number of wolves.”
Vilas County conservation congress Vice Chairman Steve Budnick said he’s wary of a deer report from a Texan.
“Obviously, deer hunting in Texas is a lot different than in Wisconsin,” Budnick said. “It seems some of the stuff he’s been pushing might work better where there’s more private land — might be more suited for Texas.”
Kroll said the conservation congress should be more involved in deer management “at the local level especially.”
That pleased Oneida County WCC member Ed Choinski, who had read the report’s executive summary.
“I really like the ‘boots on the ground’ comment,” Choinski said, referring to Kroll’s suggestion for how field biologists should approach their work.
A number of area hunting guides and sports shop owners declined to comment until they had time to read the report.
Local DNR employees referred media inquiries to agency spokesman Bill Cosh.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said it will take agency officials weeks to thoroughly review the report.
“But the Department of Natural Resources is ready, willing and eager to roll up our sleeves and get started,” Stepp said.
DNR Lands Division Administrator Kurt Thiede expressed similar sentiments.
“We are not afraid to face recommendations and critiques that are contained in the report and adjust accordingly,” Thiede said. “We want the same thing that Dr. Kroll and his team wants — which is to have the best-managed deer herd in the country.”
Kroll believes, without the recommended changes, the relationship between the public and the DNR will continue to deteriorate, and that eventually, the “Legislature is going to take deer management apart bill by bill.”
Hunting groups have been feuding with the DNR for years, contending the agency’s herd-control tactics have become so ham-handed and rigid they’re leading to anemic hunts.
Walker, a Republican, tapped into the rancor on the campaign trail two years ago, promising to respond to hunters’ complaints. The governor's administration hired Kroll in October for $125,000 to undertake an extensive review of the DNR’s policies. Kroll and two other researchers have spent the last nine months studying DNR documents and data and meeting with DNR employees, stakeholder groups, Wisconsin’s Indian tribes and the general public.
Kroll issued preliminary findings in March that were highly critical of the DNR. He picks up where he left off in his final report, picking apart everything from the DNR’s population estimates to a lack of easily accessible, computerized maps.
The report says the department’s population estimates aren’t precise enough to serve as the basis for population goals in individual management zones. Zone goals are crucial to hunters because the numbers determine what herd control strategies, such as antlerless hunts, the DNR might impose on that area.
Among the recommendations is that the DNR limit the use of the sex-age-kill model for monitoring population trends, and to simplify population-goal statements to “increase, stabilize, or decrease population density,” depending on local trends, such as crop damage, forest degradation or car-deer crashes.
Kroll also recommended decreasing the number of management units and managing by region, especially in farmland areas with large tracts of private land.
Kroll also calls for the use of a deer management assistance program. He envisions this being used on private lands, public lands and by hunting groups. He said public input is critical to implementing a DMAP.
One facet of the program could be “incentiviz(ing) private landowners to allow the public to hunt on their land,” he said.
He also recommends the DNR take a lighter hand in CWD zones, where the traditional hunting season has all but disappeared. He said eradication efforts aren’t working.
“Eradication was unsuccessful. Valiant, maybe. Even heroic. But, unsuccessful,” he said.
The report recommends the DNR start a program that allows landowners and hunting clubs to run hunts on their property after consulting with DNR biologists. At least 20 states already allow such hunts, according to the report.
The hunts would help manage the local herd, build trust between hunters, landowners and the state and provide the DNR with valuable scientific data from the dead deer. The program could yield up to 25,000 deer and cost about $100,000 annually. The money would come from enrollment fees and antlerless permit fees.
Wisconsin Democrats have accused Kroll of favoring private hunting clubs over public lands, pointing to remarks he made to “Texas Monthly” magazine in 2002 calling people who want more public land “cocktail conservationists who are really pining for socialism.” They feared Kroll might recommend privatizing public lands.
Kroll dismissed that criticism as politically motivated — it came during the height of Democrats’ attempt to recall Walker this past spring — and he insisted his mini-hunt idea could apply across swaths of public land too.
The study also recommends the DNR step up its attempts to connect with the public and stakeholders. Agency biologists should spend more time working with forestry and agricultural specialists and develop local management teams that would include tribal representatives, the agency should involve volunteers in projects as much as possible and involve members of the conservation congress, a group of influential sportsmen and women who advise the DNR in local deer-management decisions.
“You guys almost overnight can go from heels to heroes just by working with people,” Kroll said he told agency officials.
Still, Kroll praised DNR employees as competent professionals trying to do the right thing for Wisconsin wildlife. He ended the report by admonishing hunters, saying they want to see more deer than the land can sustain. They want government officials to maintain a herd so large the state’s forests would suffer and more motorists will crash into the deer.
“Ironically, by attempting to raise more deer than the land can sustain, they wind up with fewer deer,” the report said.
Kroll warned that if the DNR and hunters can’t agree on his recommendations the state’s rich hunting tradition could vanish. Legislators will step in and start mandating heavy-handed changes, he said. Hunter numbers will decline and the DNR will have to rely on predators to control the herd.
“Everybody's sick and tired of this and they’re ready to do something,” Kroll said. “The ball’s in your court, pure and simple.”
Kroll said he is no longer under contract with the state, but he will remain available.
“I don’t plan on going away,” he said. “I’ll help out any way I can.”
He said that he and his colleagues didn’t take on the nine-month project for the money or the publicity.
“This is like a capstone on our careers,” he said.
Craig Turk may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org