On Nov. 19 Wisconsin will open Season No. 3 in its “new era of deer hunting,” but history suggests roughly half of our hunters will rank its quality as “low” no matter how many bucks we shoot during the nine-day firearms season.
You’ll recall that when the Department of Natural Resources unveiled its new and improved deer hunting regulations in 2014, Secretary Cathy Stepp proclaimed a “new era” in deer management. This new age arose from the “Deer Trustee Report” written by Professor James Kroll of Texas, the deer czar handpicked by Pewaukee’s Greg Kazmierski, now vice-chairman of the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board that sets DNR policy.
You’ll also recall Dr. Kroll’s stated goal was to put the fun back into deer hunting. A lot of us didn’t realize deer hunting had ceased being fun. Maybe we weren’t paying attention. After all, many of us didn’t realize America had also ceased being great.
Either way, one wonders if even one-third of Wisconsin’s hunters will ever again judge our deer hunting as a high-quality experience. One also wonders if even 20 percent of deer hunters will ever agree the herd increased from the previous year.
Since 1998, for instance, an average of 53 percent of hunters said the herd decreased from the previous year. Not once in those 18 years did a majority of hunters say the herd increased.
Those numbers come from a survey of 10,000 hunters the DNR conducts after each gun-deer season. And since 1995, the survey has included a question asking hunters to rate the quality of their deer season. To assess the hunt’s quality, hunters considered these factors: weather, seeing deer, seeing bucks, killing a deer, opportunities to shoot deer, not seeing other hunters, and time spent with friends and family.
So, how do hunters rate our gun-deer season? In 1995, 21 percent rated it “very” or “fairly” low, 40 percent rated it average, and 39 percent rated it “very” or “fairly” high. Those numbers look kind of dreary, right?
Look again. For state deer hunters, those are giddy, tears-of-joy numbers. Think end-zone dancing and jubilant Lambeau leaps. After all, the 1995 buck kill was a record 171,891.
But we’ve never again been so joyous. Just five years later, for example, 31 percent of hunters rated gun-season low, 41 percent rated it average and 28 percent rated it high. That’s a 10-percentage point downturn from 1995 even though the 2000 buck kill was 171,753, second highest in history.
Why the quality plunge? Maybe because 32 percent of hunters in 2000 said the herd was down, even though they shot a state-record 528,494 bucks and antlerless deer that year with firearms. But “Grumpy Hunter Syndrome” was just taking root. A year later, it plummeted when gun-hunters registered nearly 142,000 bucks. That total was No. 7 all-time, but 60 percent of hunters rated it a low-quality season and 64 percent said the herd was down.
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That marked the start of a mysterious malaise that shows little sign of weakening. From 2001 through 2015, an average of 55.2 hunters annually have rated gun-deer hunting as low quality, 30.5 percent rated it average, and 14.3 percent rated it high.
This funk even defies the end of earn-a-buck. In the five gun seasons since the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker outlawed that tough-but-effective herd- management tool in summer 2011, an average of 54.4 percent of hunters still give gun-deer hunting a low-quality rating.
More than half of them (52.4 percent annually) also believe the deer herd declined annually from the previous year between 2011 and 2015. During those same years, a mere average of 7.6 percent of hunters thought the herd increased one year to the next, even though the buck kill increased in three of those five seasons from the previous year.
For further perspective, gun-hunters killed more than a half-million bucks (525,039) from 2011 to 2015, and averaged 105,008 bucks annually.
Although it’s too soon to say whether our new era of deer hunting will crack such a stubborn psychological plague, the challenge is daunting. For instance, the centerpiece of the current program is the citizen deer advisory councils in each county. CDACs are citizen-based committees that advise the DNR about their county’s deer herd, and dictate whether the herd should be increased, stabilized or decreased.
Given what we’re seeing in the annual surveys, it’s clear most hunters will never think their county has too many deer. And yet we’re supposed to believe the CDACs are objectively monitoring each county’s herd and setting goals that serve the herd’s and deer hunting’s best interests?
The DNR’s annual survey found another shortcoming in deer hunters. In the 2014 survey, only 33 percent of deerslayers even knew what CDACs were. That wasn’t a momentary lapse. It’s getting worse. The 2015 survey found only 25 percent of hunters knew CDACs existed.
But the surveys did reveal some happy news. Since the DNR launched this new era of deer hunting in 2014, it has asked deer hunters to rate the amount of fun they had. Even though previous surveys didn’t ask hunters to rate their pleasure, it appears Dr. Kroll can claim he put the fun back into Wisconsin deer hunting.
Despite all their complaints about declining herds, low-quality hunting and too many predators, most Wisconsin hunters concede they have fun deer hunting. In 2014, 55.6 percent said it was fun, 25.3 percent were neutral and 19.1 percent said it wasn’t fun. In 2015, 52.4 percent said it was fun, 25.9 percent were neutral and 21.8 percent said it wasn’t fun.
Interpret all these contradictions as you please, but here’s my take: Deer hunters enjoy crabbing and complaining about hunting. And why not? It requires no unique talent, and you can indulge indefinitely no matter how good or bad you judge the hunting.
And yet our mopey lawmakers and their agency appointees run to this whining like weasels to rib bones.
Contact Patrick Durkin, a freelance writer
, at email@example.com or write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981.