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DNR evaluates crossbow use in Wisconsin

November 08, 2019 by Jacob Friede

At the request of the Natural Resources Board (NRB) in March, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began a comprehensive evaluation of crossbow use in Wisconsin. 

It has been five years since the state has allowed an all-inclusive crossbow season for deer, which runs concurrently with the archery and gun seasons, and the NRB wanted to know what its effect has been on deer hunting in Wisconsin.

Bob Nack, big game section chief for the DNR, led a team of DNR big game program managers and human dimension scientists to evaluate crossbow use effects on areas that included buck harvest, lapsed deer hunters, declining license sales, hunter motivations, and hunter weapon choice.

During their research the team mined license sales data, surveyed thousands of hunters, reviewed crossbow technology and studied how 19 other states manage crossbow use .

At October’s Natural Resources Board meeting, Nack presented some of the key findings from the recently completed crossbow evaluation.  

“As far as we understand this is the most comprehensive evaluation of crossbows in the country and I’d like to recognize the staff that worked on this,” Nack said. “I’m quite proud of these people that I was able to work with.”

The evaluation was largely social in nature though it did address a key biological question.  Does a crossbow deer season, which adds hunting pressure during the rut, result in an over harvest of bucks? 

“Given the number of bucks that are being harvested, but also the timing of the bucks, we evaluated those two areas and did not come up with a biological concern,” Nack said.

Study focus

From a deer management perspective, Nack said the crossbow is simply another tool hunters can use to pursue deer.

“We don’t want to be insensitive that we don’t care how you kill them, but biologically speaking we need a straight forward,” Nack said. “You look at harvest of bucks and does and in this case as I mentioned earlier, our buck harvest is consistent with what the population is now and we don’t have any concern.”

The rest of the crossbow study focused more on social issues and impacts and a major question was have archery hunters and gun hunters converted to hunting with a crossbow exclusively? 

Nack said the data showed gun and archery hunters are more willing to add crossbows to their arsenal than they are to put down their gun or bow.  

“Gun-only hunters are 10 times more likely to add crossbows to their weapon choices and hunt with both of them then they are to drop gun hunting and hunt with only a crossbow,” Nack said.

According to the study, archery hunters were just as likely to drop their archery license and hunt only with a crossbow as they were to hunt with both.

Hunters who use a gun and bow were the least likely group to drop those weapons and hunt exclusively with a crossbow. 

The largest percent decline in license sales relative to the five year period before the crossbow era occurred in archery licenses.

Deer hunting license sales overall have dropped since 2014, by 0.6% per year, but, interestingly, revenue has remained stable. Nack said the reason for this is that hunters adding crossbows to their weapon choice are more likely to purchase a more expensive patrons license which includes all three choices.

“It’s $165 license and so a small increase there makes a big difference in revenue,” Nack said. “They could be dropping two license sales to buy one.” 

Licenses and motivation

Nack pointed out that despite dropping sales, which are comparable across the Midwest, Wisconsin is still among the top five states in deer hunting license sales.

To get to the heart of the matter of why gun deer license sales are dropping and if crossbows have anything to do with that, the crossbow study went right to the source. They surveyed lapsed hunters. Lapsed hunters are defined as hunters age 18-70 who did not purchase a gun license in 2018 or 2017, but had purchased a license for at least two seasons prior, with the most recent being 2016. 

Through 2,100 completed surveys, it was found that the number one reason a gun deer hunter lapsed was because they no longer enjoyed hunting like they once did. The number two reason was that they did not see enough deer.

The reduced chances of harvest due to crossbow hunting ranked 36th.

Five percent of the surveyed lapsed hunters cited crossbow use as a high or very high influence on their decision not to hunt.

And two percent of lapsed gun deer hunters have picked up a crossbow license.

In addition to those hunters who have dropped out, the crossbow study also surveyed 7,000 hunters who carry on the rich tradition of deer hunting in Wisconsin, and it’s that tradition, along with the venison and camaraderie of hunting buddies, which most motivates Wisconsin gun hunters.

“Family tradition. That came out really important for our gun hunters,” Nack said.

Archers ranked the skill needed with a bow and the challenge of the hunt, along with solitude, as top motivators for hunting.  

Crossbow hunters ranked the sense of accomplishment that accompanies a successful hunt as the most important reason to hunt.

As far as why they choose their weapons, hunters who used guns did so because they placed the greatest importance on improving their chances of harvesting a buck. Crossbow users placed the least amount of importance on getting a buck.

Half the crossbow hunters surveyed used one because they could not use a vertical bow, and one in four crossbow hunters did so as an opportunity to hunt during the rut. 

The one thing all three user groups agreed upon was the share of the buck harvest should be proportionate to the number of hunters who hold a license for each weapon.

Crossbows hunters were the only group that had a higher percentage of bucks killed compared to their percentage of license sales, and they had the highest success rates.

“Since 2014 crossbow success rates have ranged between 5-8% higher than archery and approximately 2-6% higher than gun license,” Nack said.

In addition to its impact afield, the DNR crossbow evaluation also looked at the crossbow’s economical influence. 

Ten retail businesses out of 29 contacted granted interviews. They ranged in size from big to small and were distributed all across the state.

“All the businesses reported that the inclusion of crossbows to the bow season has been good for business in general because of the versatility and user friendliness of crossbows,” Nack said. “It’s attracted new groups of people to their business and into deer hunting.” 

Half of the 10 businesses saw a drop in their compound bow sales due to more people using crossbows and half saw no change. ‘

Nine of the 10 businesses reported crossbow sales that equaled or exceeded their compound bow sales, and the crossbows that people are buying are advanced. The DNR examined technology reports on crossbows from 2014 to 2019 using reviews from Outdoorlife.com and FieldandStream.com.

“Very simply we found that crossbows have made more advancements in speed and kinetic energy as compared to compound bows,” Nack said. “Compound bows have remained pretty static since 2014 with advancements.”

Crossbow hunting is a relatively new part of Wisconsin’s deer hunting culture, and the DNR’s comprehensive study offered a close-up look at it’s early impacts. For the most part it revealed at deer hunting community that accepts it as a changing part of deer hunting tradition.  

“Traditions change over time and the report indicated the deer camps in northern Wisconsin that I cherish so much are changing and they’re not as popular as they were,” Nack said. “I think the department doesn’t feel like it’s our role to promote that and try to force that, but rather to give hunters the opportunities that they want to develop their own traditions whatever those might be.”

In Wisconsin in 2018, 47,224 hunters harvested a deer with a crossbow in comparison with 40,405 who took a deer with a compound bow and 247,614 who shot one with a gun.

Based on those numbers, the crossbow has become and will continue to be part of Wisconsin’s new hunting traditions.

The crossbow study will now be used as direction for future management decisions concerning crossbow use and the crossbow season structure.

The full study, in its 140 page entirety, is available online at dnr.wi.gov keyword search “crossbow report.” 

Jacob Friede may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]

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