The 2019 deer gun season opens tomorrow and despite last winter, which saw severe Winter Severity Index (WSI) readings across the north, hunters in the Northwoods should encounter a healthy deer herd.
“The winter definitely had a punch to it no doubt about it. The worse one we’ve had probably since that 2013-2014,” said Curt Rollman, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) deer biologist stationed out of Rhinelander. “No doubt some deer died from winter, like every winter — this year I think there was a few more, but it wasn’t as bad as it looked and that was all because of timing.”
Rollman explained that a deer builds up fat reserves throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
“Most years they’re going into the winter fat and sassy,’’ he said.
And this past year the northern deer herd’s fat reserves were in great shape going into an early mild winter that did not stress them out until later. The deer therefore had enough reserves to take on the deep snow of February and March.
“Then spring green-up came pretty quick,” Rollman said. “I think that saved a lot of deer.”
The north had been experiencing fairly mild winters since 2014 and that led to high growth rates in the deer herd.
Rollman said last year’s winter may slow that growth a bit, though he has received higher than expected fawn reports.
“Instead of the steep growth that we’ve been experiencing we probably still will have growth this year, but it might not be as steep, because of that winter impact,” he said.
Rollman’s observations are consistent with a number of the other local wildlife biologists who have had their finger on the pulse of their county’s deer herds all year. Here’s a pre-season report from Oneida, Vilas, and Iron County.
The big news out of Oneida County this year is another deer from the wild herd tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). The deer was harvested on an agricultural damage tag this fall within two miles of the county’s other two CWD positives in the town of Crescent. There was also, in 2017, a CWD positive detected in that vicinity in Lincoln County, just across the Oneida/Lincoln County border.
“We definitely have a bullseye right there,” DNR wildlife biologist Jeremy Holtz said. “Basically what I tell people is in the general vicinity of the Hat Rapids dam. They’re all very close to the Wisconsin River and the Oneida/Lincoln boundary.”
In response, the DNR has been issuing public land surveillance tags all fall in that area, which allow a hunter to harvest a buck or doe on certain public land under the agreement that the harvested deer is required to be brought in for CWD testing.
Private land surveillance tags were also made available in the Crescent block as well as in a block northeast of Rhinelander near Three Lakes where multiple deer have tested CWD positive on a captive game farm.
It’s a crucial time with regards to CWD in southern Oneida County, but Holtz hopes all hunters, not just those in the surveillance block, submit their deer for testing as it is the only way the disease can be effectively tracked.
“We couldn’t do this without hunters,” Holtz said. “We have no other mechanism to determine the scope and scale of the CWD infestation. The hunters are our allies in this and they’re the only means we have.”
Last year 70% of the CWD samples in Oneida County came from hunters who harvested a deer on their regular tag.
“Surveillance tags got us some. but the rest of the hunters just brought them in because they were concerned,” Holtz said.
He hopes this continues.
This year, as part of a push all across the north to get as many CWD samples as possible, the DNR, in cooperation with local businesses, has established a number of convenient sampling locations where hunters can drop off their deer heads for testing. Some offer assistance and some are self serve kiosks.
Antlers can be saved and if a full head mount is desired, an appointment can be made with a DNR wildlife biologist to extract the lymph nodes while keeping the head in tact.
Sampling locations can be found on the DNR website at dnr.wi.gov keyword search “CWD sampling”.
This year a dumpster has also been at the Rhinelander DNR service station as part of the adopt-a-dumpster program. The dumpster, donated by the Superior Woodlands Company, provides hunters with a safe place to dispose of their deer carcass.
Simply pitching the carcass in the woods has very dangerous consequences.
“The CWD infection is carried in the nervous system, so it’s transmissible by spinal fluids,” Holtz explained. “So you dump the spine out on the land somewhere and predators pull it apart, those prions are going to get in the soil and persist for years.”
Besides the CWD positives, the deer herd, overall, in Oneida County is healthy. Holtz said the winter gave reason for concern, but summer deer observations showed healthy, normal fawn recruitment.
“Nothing real high but also nothing real low so,” Holtz said. “Overall I think the deer numbers that we had were able to help us come through the winter in good shape.”
Holtz also said the herd is maintaining steady growth.
“We’re right where we projected that we would be in our spring time meetings,” he said. “Our population’s been steadily increasing over the last five years and we’re seeing that in terms of hunter observations.”
For the deer season, the Oneida County Deer Advisory Council set an antlerless deer quota of 1,175 does. They issued 1,350 antlerless bonus tags on public land and 2,000 on private land to achieve their quota.
Reports from Vilas County also indicate a healthy deer herd.
“I’ve been talking to a number of different people that are seeing decent signs of deer,” DNR wildlife biologist Michele Woodford said. “Last week the deer were really moving.”
The Vilas County herd came through last winter in good shape, according to Woodford, and that was thanks to the late severity of the winter and its short bursts.
“We had such a late start to our winter. It was so mild and they had a lot of food available. There was really no snow for a long time, and they were able to find a lot of forage,” Woodford said. “Even though it was extremely cold it was pretty short. I feel like we started our spring pretty early as well. Even though we had a really, really rough winter, it was pretty short.”
Woodford even noticed the snow gave the deer an advantage late in the season.
“We actually had that snow pack which sometimes prevents deer from moving,” she said. “It seemed like I saw a lot of deer that were running around on top of the snow pack so they were actually able to get forage they normally couldn’t reach because of that. So I feel like we saw a lot of deer that were coming out of the winter in good condition.”
During the winter Woodford ran tests on road kill deer where she looked for signs of winter stress.
“Of the deer that we sampled none of them were showing signs of starvation or anything like that, so I think they came out of the winter pretty well,” she said.
Still, due to the severity of the winter, the Vilas County Deer Advisory council was a bit more conservative with their antlerlesss deer quota in comparison to last year. Last year they recommended a quota of 500 does. This year they trimmed that quota down to 200 does to be achieved with 150 public land antlerless bonus tags and 350 private land bonus tags.
To find deer this year in Vilas County, Woodford recommended young forest areas.
“The best places to look for deer when you’re hunting is where their feeding areas are, their bedding areas, or those travel coordinators in between,” she said. “Where deer feel safe and where deer can find plenty of food within browsing level is going to be in those younger forest habitats where they can be hidden or be able to reach and find food and browse.”
Deer in Vilas County have also been frequenting, in fact over frequenting, developed ares.
“I have gotten a number of comments from folks in urban or populated areas with almost more deer than they can handle in those areas,” Woodford said. “Deer are getting hit on roads or eating their shrubbery so that’s, I think, a little bit higher number of calls that I’ve gotten this year, as far as deer numbers in subdivisions.”
While those areas may not be suited for gun hunting, depending on local ordinances, they may be untapped opportunities for late season archery hunters.
Vilas County is currently CWD free, though it is under a baiting and feeding ban due to being within 10 miles of the Three Lakes game farm, in Oneida County, where multiple deer have tested positive for CWD.
Like it’s neighbors, Vilas County is part of a push across the north to get a robust set of CWD samples.
“It’s our turn to do the large sampling to kind of try and get a snap shot and make sure that the herd is healthy in all of our areas,” Woodford said. “We’ve made a pretty big effort to get a few extra self-serve kiosks in some newer locations.”
She went on to explain there is a new interactive map on the DNR website in which hunters can zoom in on their location in the state and find sampling locations in their area. The map can be found at dnr.wi.gov, keyword search “CWD sampling.”
Woodford also reminded hunters to appreciate their time with family and friends and take in all the sights and sounds of nature that accompany a hunt.
“I like to think the whole experience is important too, not just bringing home a deer,” she said. “Being safe and enjoying being out in the woods is just as important as hunting deer.”
New to Iron County this year is a doe hunt. The county hasn’t had one since 2013 as part of an effort to increase the herd.
The strategy has worked and the Iron County herd has grown by 188% since 2014. Therefore, this year the Iron County Deer Advisory Council recommended a quota of 100 antlerless deer and they issued 250 antlerless bonus tags, 125 for public land and 125 for private land, to achieve that quota.
According to DNR wildlife biologist Jenna Malinowski, Iron County’s deer population can definitely afford a doe hunt.
“I’ve been getting awesome reviews in talking with foresters, talking to law enforcement, talking to the public,” she said. “It’s pretty much unanimous across the board that people are seeing more deer.”
And they’re seeing them in numbers.
“People up in the Pine Lake area have been seeing a dozen or more at a time in fields,” Malinowski said. “Gurney area is loaded with deer. The Saxon agricultural fields, this fall, when I was doing deer surveys, was like 30 to 40 in some fields, which is more than what I’ve seen in the past, so it’s looking pretty good. A lot of those are does of course.”
The doe hunt in Iron County will take some pressure off the county’s bucks, which have been the sole target over the last few seasons.
“We wanted to reduced the pressure on the bucks and possibly give them a chance to live an extra year,” Malinowski said. “So they can grow bigger bodies to support better fawns and hopefully see bigger antlers in the future.”
The bucks in Iron County this year, body wise, have been impressive.
“The bucks that we’ve aged are looking really good. The yearlings and the two year olds are bigger than last year, like much bigger than last year. Big bodies on them,” Malinowski reported.
This is a good sign considering the Iron County deer herd — like those from neighboring counties— went through a fairly severe winter, though Malinowski said the late start to the severe weather, and its short stay, were key factors in allowing the herd to survive in good shape.
“The great thing about that is in December we had very little snow, which gave our bucks and our does plenty of time to keep those fat reserves and possibly even increase fat reserves, which then led into February and March, when we did have those big snow events that usually cause deer to deplete those fat reserves fairly quickly,” Malinowski said. “We actually saw that they had plenty of fat going into that time where it really didn’t negatively impact the deer herd as a whole so much.”
While on her deer yard surveys, Malinowski reported few dead deer and the ones that were found dead were usually fawns, which is typical.
She also was not able to find traces of starvation in her road kill assessments.
“A lot of the does, a lot of the bucks, even the yearlings, those first year fawns, still had bone barrow that was still either full or immediate, which means that they weren’t suffering from malnutrition throughout the winter,” she said.
Not only is Iron County’s deer herd healthy and on the rise, it’s also been CWD free. To ensure that is still the case, Malinowski is encouraging hunters to bring their deer heads in for CWD testing.
There are a number of locations in Iron County for hunters to drop off their samples and they can be found on the DNR website at dnr.wi.gov, keyword search “CWD sampling.”
Participation in CWD testing has struggled in Iron County and though she is optimistic that the county is free of the disease, based on it’s relatively low deer numbers and it’s distance from CWD positives, Malinowski would like enough samples to thoroughly prove it.
“I think, as a hunter’s perspective of my own, if CWD is here I’d like to know about it so we can nip it in the bud, rather than see our fairly low population decrease even more if we do get something as serious as CWD in the county,” she said.
For more information on all things deer hunting visit dnr.wi.gov and keyword search “deer hunting,”
Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]