When Wisconsin’s annual nine-day firearms season opens around dawn on Saturday, Nov. 22, I won’t dwell on the state’s slow- but ever-growing stain called chronic wasting disease.
No, I’ll be much like the other 650,000 or so hunters hunkered in ground blinds and tree stands from Potosi to Pembine, and Patzau to Paddock Lake. I’ll be scanning the woods for whitetails with my ears and eyes, happy to sit from dawn to dusk in hopes of shooting the buck of a lifetime. The odds of that happening are low, of course, but far higher than winning the lottery. I hunt deer far more than I play the lottery, after all.
I’ll spend most of opening weekend in northeastern Richland County at my late uncle’s farm to hunt with my cousins, and then drive five hours north to hunt central Ashland County with longtime friends through Tuesday in the Chequamegon National Forest.
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I’ll do lots of thinking, wishing and daydreaming while sitting, waiting and chilling. Deer hunting’s great for that. When you’re alone with your thoughts, it’s easy to think you’re still young and that deer hunting never changes.
As the Department of Natural Resources’ new deer-season slogan reads, “The rules have changed, but the tradition remains.” I like that. It conjures up images of red-plaid wool, .30-30 Winchesters and snow-crusted deer shacks at dusk.
Then again, the state’s new deer rules aren’t any more dramatic than most years, and certainly don’t require late-night study. But just to be sure we notice its new drapes, the DNR put out a six-page fact sheet that leads with this question: “What will changes in 2014 mean for MY deer season?”
Well, we’re now using county boundaries instead of roads and rivers to designate deer-management units. But so what? How many deer stories involve a DMU, and how many whitetails will notice the change?
And next year, of course, most of us will register our deer by telephone or computer instead of having a tavern-keep or convenience-store clerk do the honors. But will our hunting experience really improve when each antlerless tag is designated for public or private land?
The DNR also assures us we’ll be happier because we’ll never again argue about deer-herd estimates and population goals. Instead, we’ll just chat about the herd in our county and whether it’s too small, too large or just right.
Hmm. Let me guess: There’s not enough deer. Anywhere.
Meanwhile, the DNR continues to downplay CWD, and assures us that “Wisconsin is managing CWD to prevent its spread rather than to eradicate the disease.”
And since when? While introducing its new deer-management program 10 months ago, the agency made this concession: “The proposals contained in these rules are not likely to result in a reduction in the rate of infection in deer or geographic location of infected animals.”
In other words: “We’ve lost. CWD will do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants.”
Neither did the DNR’s revised deer program offer new research to better monitor CWD’s continued spread, or test hunting/management methods to slow or stop it.
Maybe that’s why CWD continues to infect ever-larger segments of affected herds while oozing steadily into new areas. After analyzing CWD tests from last year’s deer seasons, DNR biologists reported these infection rates:
-- 40 percent for adult bucks in north-central Iowa County, up from about 33 percent in fall 2012.
-- 32 percent for adult bucks in south-central Iowa County, up from about 25 percent in fall 2012.
-- 25 percent for adult bucks in southeastern Richland County, up from about 16 percent in 2012.
-- 23 percent for adult bucks in southwestern Sauk County, up from about 15 percent in 2012.
-- 23 percent for adult bucks in southeastern Iowa County, up from about 16 percent in 2012.
-- 17 percent for adult bucks in northwestern Iowa County, up from about 10 percent in 2012.
-- 17 percent for adult bucks in southwestern Dane County, up from about 12 percent in 2012.
It’s tough to see how the DNR is preventing CWD’s spread when three of those seven areas didn’t have one deer test positive when the fatal disease was discovered in 2002. Further, two of those areas had only one positive test in 2002, and one had two bucks test positive. Only north-central Iowa County with 21 sick deer detected cases in double-digits that year.
Even so, many of us continue to hunt deer in this increasingly diseased region. It’s where many of learned to hunt deer, and it remains a beautiful land with abundant wildlife. We continue to cherish it, much as we would a stricken loved one.
So, yes, the deer hunting tradition remains, but how long before it, too, falls to CWD?
I choose to ignore that grave likelihood the next few days. It should worry us, though, that the DNR has made such denials state policy.
Contact Patrick Durkin, a freelance writer who covers outdoors recreation for the Wisconsin State Journal, at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981.