Outdoors: Need some help? Check out Wisconsin's gun-deer season forecast

Outdoors: Need some help? Check out Wisconsin's gun-deer season forecast

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Aaron Gagner of La Crosse, right, watches as DNR wildlife bioligist Ron Lichtie checks the age of the buck Gagner shot in Bangor on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012 at the Neshonoc Sports deer registration in West Salem during the opening day of the deer gun hunt season. 

Wisconsin is one of the best places in North America to hunt deer and is typically in the top three states for total harvest.

In 2012, for instance, Wisconsin was ranked first among the states and Canadian provinces for producing trophy bucks by the venerable Boone and Crocket Club.

Each hunter’s experience is different, though, and harvest success during 2012 varied across Wisconsin. Many factors were in the hunter’s favor last year, including the earliest possible gun opener on the calendar, good rut activity during the gun season and the fact that 90 percent or more of the agricultural crops were picked by mid-November.

Good hunting conditions throughout the fall and higher numbers of deer resulted in the third consecutive year of increased deer harvest. Gun hunters took the most bucks since the 2007 season and bow hunters harvested the highest number of bucks on record, including a new all-time, state-record typical archery buck.

In total, deer hunters in Wisconsin harvested 368,314 deer in 2012, an increase over each of the previous three seasons.

Although it was a productive season for many hunters, others found it less than desirable.

In the eastern half of the northern forested region, hunters shot fewer deer than in the previous year. Antlerless permit levels in many forest units have been conservative in recent years and will be even more so in 2013. While this strategy is designed to increase deer sightings in the future, the number of antlerless deer harvested this year can be expected to decrease in many areas due to the simple fact that fewer permits are available.

Hunters understand that deer densities are not consistent across the landscape. Local deer populations are influenced by the amount of high quality habitat, the abundance and distribution of predators and the level of human disturbance. These factors can shift from year to year. Trail cameras and field observations in the early morning and late evening are great ways to see how many deer are present and what kind of bucks are in a given area. If you are not finding many deer in the area you hope to hunt, you might consider scouting out some new hunting ground for the upcoming season.

The season structure for the 2013 deer season, which opens Nov. 23 and runs through Dec. 1, will be almost identical to 2012 with a few changes in individual deer management units, or DMUs, designated as “herd control” or as “regular” units. Most DMUs in the northern and central forest regions will have limited or no antlerless harvest in an effort to increase deer populations. The farmland regions will remain as either herd control or CWD units. In these areas, deer are generally abundant in relation to their local habitat and are controlled though the harvest of antlerless deer. Still, local abundance can vary greatly across a unit.

One factor that will likely affect distribution across the forested regions is winter weather. Last winter arrived late and stayed long into spring. Deer, along with migrating birds, found ice and snow-covered ground instead of succulent shoots of new growth. Late summer fawn and doe observations will provide clues to winter’s impact. However, no drastic losses of deer were reported, and the prospects for increased deer abundance look promising in most areas.

Northern district

Whenever we talk about how deer are doing in northern Wisconsin, we start with conditions last winter and late spring. We experienced a colder than average February and March with snow coming later and lingering longer into April.

Snow depths as of April 1, in many locations, set historic records. Our past experience in the north is that this has a greater impact than snow coming early with more moderate temperatures mid-winter. Across the north, mild “winter severity index” readings were not fully reflective of winter impacts on deer, with broad variations locally. Severe “crusty” snow conditions were noted in many areas and this made it much more difficult and strenuous for deer to move. Overnight lows in the mid-teens made this crust more pronounced due to daytime melting. As a result, this past spring we received numerous reports of deer in poor shape.

Local field biologists were attentive to this and examined bone marrow from deceased deer (car-killed deer, for instance). These examinations confirmed that deer had a difficult time this past winter in many areas of northern Wisconsin. Although we did not expect significant direct mortality, we do expect reduced recruitment. The late spring resulted in a delayed green-up and likely compounded the stress caused by late winter conditions. For this reason we ratcheted down the antlerless quota in many forested units. This means fewer antlerless permits, if any, in many units across northern Wisconsin. This begs the question “Why harvest any antlerless deer, especially in the north?”

The short answer is that these conditions did not occur everywhere and some level of antlerless harvest is almost always a good management principle. There are many areas, especially in our farmland fringe areas, where deer populations are still very high.

The following are some more detailed reasons for a low quota compared to a zero quota in our primarily forested deer

management units:

• The majority of the public commenting (both on-line and in-person at the annual herd status meetings) preferred low quotas to zero quotas.

• Since these units can sustain an antlerless harvest, zero quota means we will likely have to play catch up the following year with a much higher quota. A big jump makes it harder for people to have confidence in the management strategy.

• It gives archery hunters the opportunity to harvest an antlerless deer.

• It gives interested gun hunters and especially novice hunters a better opportunity to harvest a deer.

• It reduces waste of antlerless deer that are inadvertently shot and left untagged.

• It provides better integrity of data with deer being registered and reported more consistently in the correct unit.

• It helps reduce large swings in the population.

West Central district

Despite a late winter, cold damp spring and scattered winter mortality in several of the 19 counties that make up the west central district, deer numbers across the region are doing well.

Most wildlife biologists believe that overall deer numbers should be on par with last year if not higher. Of the district’s 30 deer management units, 22 have deer populations that exceed overwinter goals and these will have a herd control framework to help hunters manage deer in their units. The remaining eight units have deer populations closer to their overwinter goals and will have a regular season framework, meaning that hunters need to purchase a tag for their specific unit in order to be able to harvest an antlerless deer. Jess Carstens, wildlife biologist for Dunn and Pepin Counties, said that with the 2013 gun deer season occurring late in November, deer activity will likely be different than during last year’s earlier season.

Deer should be plentiful in these two counties, however, for archers and gun hunters alike. Black River Falls wildlife supervisor Tim Babros said deer are abundant in Buffalo and Trempealeau counties. Many twin fawns are being reported even though the area experienced a prolonged winter and late spring. Deer numbers should be excellent for fall hunting seasons. The central forest deer management units – continuing into Monroe, Juneau and Adams counties – are experiencing deer population increases which should be noticeable to hunters. Spring turkey hunters, bear hunters and other recreationalists report many deer observations in these areas.

Wisconsin Rapids area wildlife supervisor Kris Johansen notes that a fair amount of commercial timber harvesting in deer management units 55 and 58 may change the look of the landscape and the movements of deer. The timber harvests should provide significantly improved habitat for deer and for other wildlife species that depend on young forests. Johansen said the DNR will ask deer hunters to assist with CWD monitoring in Portage, Juneau and Adams Counties. This fatal disease of deer and elk was newly discovered in these counties last fall.

In an effort to better understand the disease’s distribution, DNR staff will be collecting tissue samples from hunter-harvested deer throughout the archery and nine-day gun deer seasons. The discovery of CWD in these counties is not altering the deer season structure in any way. More information on how hunters may donate tissue samples will be forthcoming as the deer season approaches. Recent law changes have opened up additional state parks to deer hunting.

Cortney Schaefer, wildlife biologist in Wausau, said a larger area of Rib Mountain State Park is now open to deer hunting, with a major portion of the park designated for archery deer hunting only. Similarly, Jon Robiadek, wildlife biologist in Adams and Juneau Counties, reminds deer hunters that there have been recent changes governing deer hunting at Buckhorn State Park and adjacent wildlife areas. Deer hunters are encouraged to check with Buckhorn park staff at 608-565-2789 or look online before hunting the park or adjacent wildlife areas.

Information on deer hunting in state parks may be found at http://dnr.wi.gov, keywords: ‘hunting state parks’. Wildlife biologists said deer hunters might want to monitor the progress of local wild foods eaten by deer, such as acorns, hazelnuts and berries. It appears that lingering effects from last year’s drought, a slow start to this year’s growing season and heavy June rainfalls have affected many highly sought after deer foods. Check your hunting area often to monitor food production and subsequent deer use.

Southern district

The herd will offer hunters ample opportunity to see and harvest deer.

Aerial surveys in January and February indicate a stable to slowly increasing deer population. The southern district encompasses a wide range of deer habitat in the southern farmland portion of the state, from the wooded ridges and coulees in the southwest to the flatter, intensely agricultural landscape along the Illinois border to the rolling southern kettles in the east and the extensive wetland and woodland areas of Columbia County.

The southern Wisconsin herd came through last winter in very good shape, despite the late spring. Fawn production was excellent throughout the farmland region. In general, deer populations in the northern tier of southern district counties (i.e., Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Jefferson, Waukesha, Iowa and Sauk) show a slight increase over past years.

The southern tier of counties (i.e., Grant, Lafayette, Green, Rock, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha) has had a relatively stable population during the past five years. But the trouble with such a general statement on deer populations over such a broad area is that it tells a very simple story when actual land use and habitat conditions are complex. Local deer numbers can vary dramatically from one square mile to the next.

Southern district hunters who take the time to scout their hunting areas and set up along active trails have an excellent chance to both see deer and put venison in the freezer. Deer hunting is almost always enjoyable, but every hunt can be enhanced by doing your homework before taking your bow or gun to the deer stand. Deer shift their movements each year according to changing food sources, changing habitat and human activity. A hunter sitting in the same stand that yielded deer year after year a decade ago may be hard pressed to see a deer now because the deer have shifted their patterns of movement. One strategy is to get out well before the season, look for active game trails linking bedding areas with feeding areas and then to set up hunting stands accordingly.

Remember, you are in the deer’s living room where it is difficult to go unnoticed. Once the season starts, avoid letting the deer pattern you. Use different routes to get to and from your stands, don’t hunt the same time of day every time out and consider using varied stand locations depending on wind direction.

Most of our southern district deer are harvested on private property, which makes up more than 90 percent of the landscape, but good deer hunting can also be found on the hundreds of thousands of acres of county, state and federally owned lands open to deer hunting in the southern district. Hunters who are interested in finding public land available for hunting can check out the DNR website at dnr.wi.gov, keywords ‘state lands.’ Hunters interested in hunting on private lands are advised to get out well in advance of deer season to meet with landowners and seek permission to hunt.

The majority of the southern district falls within the CWD Management Zone. The disease continues to increase in the herd with the overall infection rate of adult males at about 20 percent in the western CWD core area, and 6 to 8 percent in the east. With the discovery of two positive deer in northern Waukesha County last year, Washington County has been added to the list of counties where feeding and baiting of deer is prohibited. Specific rules and additional late-season hunting opportunities are in place for the entire CWD zone. An updated list of locations where hunters can get their deer tested will be posted on the DNR website prior to the season opener. A second malady that affected southern district deer this past August and September was a midge transmitted viral disease called epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD). The conditions that fostered EHD last year were hot weather and drought which created mud flats and limited water sources that concentrated deer and midges in the same areas.

While we’ve experienced hot conditions over the summer, rainfall has been well above average. Ditches, ponds and marshes have plenty of water in them this summer. We will continue to monitor the deer herd for EHD, and we need the help of hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. Citizens are urged to report any suspicious deer deaths, especially any groups of dead deer they may encounter. The venison donation program will again be in place so that hunters can donate deer to food pantries throughout Wisconsin, including in the CWD zone.

The CWD season framework provides extra days of hunting opportunity not offered in the rest of the state, and even if hunters fill their freezers early, the Target Hunger initiative is in need of venison from hunters wanting or willing to stay afield.

Field dressed deer can be donated at no cost to the hunter in each county and will go to needy families within those counties. This is an extremely valuable program that fills an ever growing need. A list of participating butchers and pantry drop-off sites will be available on the DNR website, at local deer registration sites and at food pantry locations as we get closer to deer season.

Northeast district

Deer populations in the northeast district continue to be a tale of two stories, generally divided by Hwy 64 through Marinette and Oconto counties. North of Highway 64 (except for Unit 51A) buck harvests took a small dip last fall. Given this and the long, late winter, antlerless harvest quotas have been reduced significantly.

However, there will be no “buck only” units in this area. During public input sessions, hunters told us they understand the merits of having small antlerless quotas that would still allow for herd growth. We expect the buck kill in these units to be similar to last year or possibly a bit lower in some areas.

Although record-keeping hadn’t begun at the time of this writing, observations of this year’s fawns indicate their numbers seem to be up. The late spring doesn’t appear to have affected production significantly. South of Highway 64, it’s a different story. Deer populations continue to trend upward as antlerless harvests have remained stable or increased slightly over the past four years. Even in those units where antlerless harvests have been increasing, it has not kept up with or stabilized deer productivity, and many farmland units are approaching or have exceeded record high numbers.

Buck harvests are expected to again increase across the farmland units, although the late date of the gun season opener may dampen buck movement and the subsequent harvest. During the prolonged winter in March and April, we received reports of starved deer throughout the eastern farmland region. Most of these deer were fawns. This reflects the high production that occurred in 2012 and a deer population at the edge of the land’s biological carrying capacity.

The losses that occurred this spring, however, will have little effect on continued high productivity. Increasing the antlerless harvest this fall will help prevent winter starvation and the over-browsing of natural vegetation that comes with it.

Deer are not spread evenly on the landscape and even in units that are at or near record populations there are certainly areas that do not contain high numbers. Hunters in these areas will understandably be reluctant to shoot antlerless deer. But the ramifications of deer numbers continuing on their current upward trend are serious. Hunters can feel comfortable harvesting antlerless deer, a local and sustainable source of healthy food, knowing they are making a responsible contribution toward sustainable deer management.

What’s new in 2013?

There are a number of rule and regulation changes this year that may be of interest to deer hunters. The most notable changes are listed here. Please check the 2013 Deer Hunting Regulations for more information.

• The coyote season no longer closes in the northern portion of Wisconsin during the gun deer season.

• There are now expanded opportunities for hunting and trapping in state parks.

• Baiting and feeding deer is no longer allowed in Washington County.

• Rifles will allowed statewide for hunting deer during the 9-day November gun hunt and the four-day December antlerless gun deer season (subject to local ordinances that restrict use of certain firearms).

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