Wisconsin’s bowhunters head to the woods Sept. 15 to start the state’s 114-day archery deer season, the fifth in our “new age” of deer hunting, as proclaimed by former Department of Natural Resources secretary Cathy Stepp.
Wisconsin entered this new hunting era in 2014 after going through Gov. Scott Walker’s “Deer Trustee” review process, led by Texas biologist James Kroll. The 2018 archery season also marks the fifth year hunters can use crossbows, a change that still rankles folks who forever fret about neighbors who attend the wrong church.
With four seasons of new-age deer-harvest data in the books, at least one thing is clear: Bowhunters are now arrowing more bucks and fewer antlerless deer (does and fawns), exactly opposite their habits during the final four years of old-age deer hunting, 2010-2013.
After averaging 43,515 bucks and 45,466 antlerless deer in that olden era, new-age bowhunters averaged 50,744 bucks and 36,567 antlerless deer the past four years.
Before attributing that roughly 7,000-deer flip-flop to crossbows, let’s review some numbers. Crossbow hunters the past four years averaged 21,833 bucks and 15,165 antlerless deer, or 59 percent bucks and 41 percent antlerless deer. Meanwhile, archers shooting compounds and other “vertical” bows, averaged 28,911 bucks and 21,402 antlerless deer, or 57.5 percent bucks and 42.5 percent antlerless deer.
In other words, the differences between the two groups are minor. Those similarities align with recent DNR surveys that suggest bowhunters will be bowhunters, whether they shoot crossbows or compound bows. Despite endless self-righteous squabbling over each other’s choice in bows, archers’ habits and preferences differ little.
That can change, of course, Crossbow hunters are growing in number, and in 2017 they registered more deer than did vertical-bow hunters for the first time, 47,228 to 45,166; including more bucks, 27,406 to 25,808.
Still, even as crossbow hunters and vertical-bow hunters combined to set record buck kills the past four seasons, ranging from 46,201 in 2014 to 53,214 in 2017, last year’s archery buck total was half of last year’s firearms buck kill, 105,598; and not much higher than previous record archery buck totals in 2003 and 2012 (45,498 and 45,839, respectively).
We should note that antlerless kills by gun-hunters also dropped during the 2014-2017 seasons, but gun-hunters still averaged 21,554 more antlerless deer (123,488) than bucks (101,934) those years.
It’s difficult, however, to explain why bowhunters switched so dramatically to bucks the past four years. Granted, antlerless hunting was banned in many northern counties the past four years, but antlerless tags were infinite in southern counties and still the kill dropped.
That behavioral change bears watching, but here’s a possibility: With chronic wasting disease rising across southwestern counties, perhaps growing numbers of bowhunters simply won’t bother arrowing a doe. It appears they’re content to arrow one deer annually, and increasingly hold out for bucks. And why not? With hunter numbers declining, there’s less competition. Further, the herd is increasing and the Legislature – with the DNR’s tacit approval and the governor’s eager signature – eliminated earn-a-buck restrictions in 2011.
Speaking of CWD, archers will be the first hunters to test the state’s new restrictions on moving deer carcasses. The law specifies that hunters can haul whole deer or any parts of the deer anywhere in Wisconsin as long as their trip ends at a licensed taxidermist or meat processor within 72 hours. Therefore, the law changes nothing for those who don’t tackle such jobs themselves.
The rest of us, though, can no longer just haul our deer to wherever we traditionally cut it up and packaged it. If the county where we shot the deer is “CWD affected,” we can’t haul it any farther than the county line, unless we’ve boned it out and left behind its brain, spinal cord and lymph nodes. Preferably, we’ll deposit those parts in a dumpster for disposal in a clay-lined landfill.
Those practices were already much the norm for many of us who hunt southwestern Wisconsin, the state’s most infected region. That’s because the previous rule on moving deer carcasses was a moving target, spreading farther and wider with every new county affected by CWD. Therefore, rather than risk the DNR’s wrath, hunters learned to bone out their deer before heading home with just the meat.
To further ease compliance, the DNR is providing about 100 self-serve kiosks this year where hunters can drop off deer heads for CWD testing. To find the nearest kiosk or a DNR-staffed sampling site, visit https://dnr.wi.gov/wmcwd/RegStation/Search.
Some kiosks provide freezers for the samples. If not, the DNR advises hunters to bring deer heads in for testing within five days, unless they can keep it frozen. Also, DNR staff can’t always visit kiosks on weekends, so if it’s warm you might want to wait until a weekday to drop it off.
The agency is also working with hunters and hunting groups to provide dumpsters at some locations for discarding deer bones, but that won’t be available everywhere.
Personally, I don’t find the carcass restrictions all that troublesome. Folks who never processed their own deer won’t notice the change. And those of us who always processed our own deer will adjust. We’ll bone them out where the deer drops, or cut them up on the truck’s tailgate or inside a nearby barn or garage.
My complaint? These restrictions should have been imposed in 2002 by Gov. Scott McCallum, in 2003 by Gov. Jim Doyle, or in 2011 by Gov. Walker. Even seven years ago, CWD was nowhere near as prevalent or widespread as it’s become while Walker slept.
I’m also unsure why the new law bothers specifying “CWD affected counties.” After all, 55 of our 72 counties are “affected.” We might as well make it customary to bone out deer in the field or at camp, no matter where we hunt statewide.
Sigh. This is truly a new age in deer hunting.