Wisconsin's Whitetail Future
By Darren Warner
Wisconsin deer czar Dr. James Kroll recently issued his final report on how to improve deer management and deer hunting in the Badger State. Wrapped around more than 60 recommendations is a forceful, fundamental message: the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), landowners and hunters must work together to manage whitetails or suffer the consequences.
“If the relationship between the DNR and hunters completely falls apart, the Legislature will take deer management apart one bill at a time,” said Kroll. “Then the Legislature will be managing the deer herd.”
Last November, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker named Kroll deer trustee and charged him with evaluating the WDNR’s deer management program. Kroll enlisted Drs. David Guynn and Gary Alt, both deer management gurus, to help him. Not surprising to Wisconsinites, one of the first things the researchers learned was that distrust of the WDNR runs rampant among hunters and private landowners. Neither group believes the WDNR listens to them.
“Hunters have been telling the DNR for years that there aren’t as many deer in some areas as their population models predict,” said Wausau resident and hunter Gary Brewster. “But they’ve [the WDNR] continued to issue too many doe permits in those areas.”
In their preliminary report issued in March, Kroll and his colleagues also found that hunters have little confidence in the WDNR’s ability to effectively manage deer. Kroll et al. pointed to two colossal management failures as the reasons behind the public’s distrust: using the Sex-Age-Kill (SAK) model to estimate the number of deer in each deer management unit (DMU); and the failed chronic wasting disease (CWD) management plan, which included hiring government “sharpshooters” to wipe out deer herds to try to eradicate the disease.
Immediately after issuing the preliminary report, Kroll came under intense political fire. Critics accused him of everything from devaluing public-land hunting to trying to transplant Texas’s deer management program to Wisconsin. On the whole, hunters welcomed Kroll’s insights and deer management philosophy, which is based on involving the public in deer management goals and decisions. After years of having the WDNR turn a deaf ear to their concerns, someone was finally listening and echoing what landowners and hunters have been saying for decades: deer management is broken and the WDNR’s taken the joy out of deer hunting.
The Final Recommendations
Poring through every recommendations is beyond the scope of this discussion, but they all fall under Kroll’s three-pronged approach to deer management: population management, habitat management and people management, which entails striking a balance between those who want more deer (hunters) and those who want fewer deer (motorists, farmers).
“All of our recommendations have an overall theme of rebuilding trust between the DNR, hunting community and landowners,” Dr. David Guynn explained. “One of our most important recommendations is to develop a Deer Management Assistance Program [DMAP], which gets hunters and biologists talking, so they learn about factors that are influencing deer herds.”
Guynn noted that currently 20 states have some form of a DMAP operating. Kroll’s team also recommended that Wisconsin hire a DMAP coordinator to get local DMAPs started and ensure deer management occurs from the “bottom up,” rather than the WDNR’s “top-down” approach.
“Giving up control will be one of the biggest issues for the DNR,” Kroll added. “But wherever we went, hunters kept asking us if we’re going to put the fun back in deer hunting. We are – and we’re going to make it fun to be a DNR biologist again, too.”
One way to make deer hunting more enjoyable is to simplify hunting rules and regulations. Kroll’s team recommends cleaning up the regulations to make them easier to understand, and revisiting them no more than every three years.
“Simplifying the regulations is long overdue,” said Dennis Hoffman, president of the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Inc. (www.wisdeerhunters.com). “We have so many antlerless seasons and complicated rules that it’s driving hunters away.”
One regulation change Kroll and his colleagues suggest is to re-evaluate the effectiveness of the October antlerless season in the CWD Zone. So far October hunting hasn’t had a noticeable effect on CWD, so Wisconsin should bag the special season.
Some won’t be happy with the recommendation to charge for antlerless licenses in the CWD Zone and increase the cost of all antlerless tags for regular and herd-control units to $12. Kroll’s team sees little point in doling out up to four antlerless licenses a day in the CWD Zone.
“It devalues deer, which is something Wisconsin really needs to get away from doing,” explained Guynn. “The DNR’s CWD management plan treated deer like a nuisance rather than a valuable resource, and money generated from antlerless permits can be used to conduct management research.”
Involve Hunters and Landowners
Guynn and the other deer managers believe the WDNR needs to involve hunters and landowners in conducting deer management research. State biologists need to work closely with hunters and property owners to assess the impact of predators on whitetails, evaluate deer habitats and address other research priorities. Rather than spending the bulk of their time in front of a computer using the SAK model to derive flawed population estimates, Kroll proposes a “boots on the ground” approach, where biologists collaborate with staff from the Wisconsin Division of Forestry and the public to see what’s going on in the woods, and what deer need to thrive throughout the state.
“You don’t manage deer by setting population goals,” Kroll added. “You manage deer by setting harvest goals and measuring herd health. The DNR needs to develop metrics to determine how deer are doing.”
One thing’s for sure: hunters hate the SAK population model.
“Our members are out in the woods four months a year, so they see the models weren’t working,” said Mike Brust, president of the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association (www.wisconsinbowhunters.org). “We are told to harvest deer in areas where there just weren’t a lot of deer.”
Kroll’s team recommends restricting the use of the SAK to measuring trends regionally and statewide. The SAK doesn’t work at the DMU level, and it’s high time Wisconsin stops relying on it to determine how many deer it has.
Kroll admits that implementing DMAPs will be challenging and that he’s not addressing concerns Wisconsin hunters haven’t voiced for decades.
“They recommend resolving the baiting issue, but we’ve been trying to do that for years,” added Brust. “What I would have liked to see are more recommendations on how to come to a decision on things like baiting and crossbows.”
While the final report seems to have been well-received by most hunters, some resent Kroll’s involvement at all. An editorial in the Capital Times, argued that, “Wisconsin does not need Texans telling us how to hunt, or how to manage our land in a manner that best serves Wisconsin hunters.”
Anyone can argue that Wisconsin didn’t need Kroll to point out the flaws in its deer management program, but the famed deer manager was only doing the job Governor Walker hired him to do. And hunters are already seeing a brighter future for deer and deer hunting.
“The biggest thing he [Kroll] provides is a change in attitude,” Brust added. “For so long there’s been huge distrust and a lack of credibility between the DNR, landowners and hunters.”
Everyone recognizes that there are no quick fixes and that rebuilding trust between the WDNR and the public will take time. Wisconsin is already one of the top deer hunting states in the country, so it’s hard to imagine how deer hunting will improve. But Kroll believes that if his plan is implemented, deer habitat will improve, resulting in a larger deer herd in sparsely populated areas and better public-land hunting.
“What’s more important than killing better deer is improving the experience,” Kroll said. “By involving hunters and landowners, their involvement goes from participating in hunting season to a 365-day experience, where the public is an integral part of deer management in Wisconsin.”
Finally, Kroll pointed out that managing whitetails isn’t as complicated as the WDNR has made it.
“Whitetail deer are very happy to tell you how they’re doing, you just have to go to where they are and ask them.”
Ironically, that’s what Wisconsin hunters have been wanting the WDNR to do for decades.
Other important recommendations found in the final report include:
-- Set antlerless harvest goals, harvest regulations and antlerless permit quotas on a 3-5 year cycle.
-- Take a more passive approach to CWD by focusing on measuring spread of the disease.
-- Develop an antlerless permit system for public land.
-- Involve the public in predator studies and set up a wolf management program to decrease wolf conflicts.
-- Reduce the number of Deer Management Units and combine farmland regions.