There’s a disease running rampant through the fields and woods of Wisconsin. I’m not talking about bovine tuberculosis or chronic wasting disease (CWD), or anything afflicting whitetail deer. Instead, it’s in the minds and hearts of deer hunters.
“The Wisconsin DNR [Department of Natural Resources] doesn’t listen to hunters,” said Chet Schnellenberger of Spooner, Wis. “I’ve been trying to get a biologist to come on my land so I can show him what’s going on with the deer herd, but they tell me they don’t have the time.”
In a packed gymnasium at Hayward Intermediate School in Hayward, Wis., Schnellenberger and other hunters gathered to talk about how the DNR is managing one of the state’s most precious resources. Unlike DNR public hearings, hunters attended the town hall meeting with renewed hopes that their voices would be heard.
To be fair to the DNR, deer management in Wisconsin, as it’s currently constituted, isn’t set up to take hunters’ concerns, experiences or expertise into account before making important decisions about deer and deer hunting.
“The way the process is laid out legislatively is that the DNR decides what they’re going to do and then tells the public,” said Dr. James Kroll, a biologist and professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. “Wisconsin hunters know what the whitetail population is doing, so taking them out of the process is not a good idea.”
Hunters’ dissatisfaction with the DNR is nothing new. Public concern over Wisconsin’s deer-management program has been smoldering for decades.
“Distrust with the DNR has a long history here in Wisconsin,” said Mark Toso, president of the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association. “Dads teach their kids to distrust the DNR—it’s almost part of the deer-hunting culture.”
Dr. Deer Arrives
What is new is that someone decided to do something about the problem. In November 2011, Gov. Scott Walker named Kroll (nationally known as “Dr. Deer”) as Wisconsin’s deer trustee and charged him with the task of reviewing programs, activities and efforts by the DNR related to deer management. Kroll appointed Drs. David Guynn and Gary Alt to serve with him as the review committee. Collectively, these three men have more than 100 years of experience in whitetail science and management.
Kroll and his colleagues recently released a preliminary report on their findings, the results of which are expected to forever change the landscape of deer management in the Badger State.
Before discussing their preliminary findings, it’s important to note that Kroll’s team didn’t just assess the DNR.
“Our work is more an evaluation of the entire deer management process and how hunters have been marginalized,” explained Guynn.
Hunters Finally Heard
The researchers examined the results and recommendations of previous reviews of the DNR’s activities, conducted several town hall meetings (such as the one attended by Schnellenberger) to garner hunters’ concerns, and collected additional comments via the Dr. Deer website (www.drdeer.com/Wisconsin.html). Of the more than 1,100 comments submitted to that site, the top five issues hunters and landowners identified were:
1. Too many predators.
2. DNR does not listen.
3. Inaccurate population estimates.
4. Come to a decision on baiting.
5. Eliminate Earn-a-Buck.
Those other studies examined by the review committee—including Deer Management for 2000 and Beyond, the SAK Review, and a survey conducted by Staples Marketing, LLC—found great distrust of the DNR. Staples found that the distrust can be traced back to DNR’s handling of CWD and their unpopular Earn-A-Buck program, which the legislature ended in 2011.
“The different seasons in the CWD Zone compared to the rest of the state frustrates hunters,” said Nathan Baer, vice-president of client services for Staples Marketing. “And although their CWD management program has changed, the negative impressions formed over how the DNR initially responded to CWD still linger today.”
Kroll et al. determined that the intense dissatisfaction with and distrust of the DNR are primarily over two issues: 1) Use of the Sex-Age-Kill (SAK) model to estimate the number of deer in each Deer Management Unit (DMU) and to set harvest quotas; and 2) The DNR’s handling of CWD.
Originally developed to estimate fish populations, the SAK model does a poor job of counting deer, and it does a miserable job of counting them at the DMU level. The SAK also assumes that all deer harvests are random, meaning hunters are just as likely to take a 1½-year-old buck as a 4½-year-old buck. Obviously, hunters know this isn’t the case. The model also assumes a stable deer population—something that’s a rare occurrence in Wisconsin.
Even though the SAK model produces subpar population estimates, the DNR has been married to it for years.
“The DNR has placed an inordinate amount of emphasis on estimating the deer population and not enough on managing habitat or considering the human dimensions of harvest,” added Kroll.
This focus on generating population estimates partially stems from a Wisconsin law that requires such estimates to be produced annually. Most other states only create estimates every three to five years.
Perhaps too preoccupied with number crunching, Kroll’s team found that the DNR has ignored the value of building relationships with those individuals and groups that have a vested interest in deer and deer hunting.
“One thing that surprised me was that they have 70 wildlife biologists that cover 72 counties, but they’re not getting out and talking with folks,” said Guynn. “But can you imagine how many hunters own and use trail cameras? They could involve hunters in collecting data to generate more accurate population estimates.”
The DNR’s CWD management program also breeds distrust among hunters. The DNR tried to reduce CWD—a neurological disease originally detected in Wisconsin in 2002—by paying sharpshooters to wipe out deer herds in CWD-infected areas. Not surprisingly, the public erupted.
“You can’t eradicate whitetail deer, and you can’t eradicate a disease,” Kroll noted. “They have as many or more CWD deer now than they did in 2002. Their approach turned one of the most majestic game animals into a pest and made the problem about just killing them, rather than loving nature and hunting. You can’t do that to an animal.”
The full report, along with recommendations for revamping Wisconsin’s deer management program, will be released by June 30. One change the team will recommend is more of what Kroll calls “boots on the ground” management, meaning more DNR biologists and technicians getting out and talking with hunters and landowners. Rather than operating as a regulatory department, Kroll believes the DNR needs to facilitate cooperation. One way to do this is by creating a Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) similar to those that operate in states like Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. These programs help landowners achieve specific deer management objectives on a localized level.
The team will also recommend chucking the SAK model in favor of harvest-based population estimates and improving the monitoring of deer herds by studying the influences on them, like habitat quality and predators.
“It takes resources, but if you involve hunters, you can work together to collect data and information that can be used to design and carry out a deer management program that takes hunters into account,” Guynn added.
That’s something Wisconsin hunters have waited a long time to hear.