MADISON, Wis. — Hunters killed far fewer deer during opening weekend of Wisconsin's traditional nine-day gun season than last year after the season's unusually late start kept them from taking to the woods during the rut, state wildlife officials said Tuesday.

The herd appears to as robust as ever. The Department of Natural Resources has estimated nearly 2 million deer are roaming the landscape. For the first time in a decade the department allowed hunters this season to kill does in every county, a telltale sign that the herd is strong and there's no need to protect female deer and preserve their reproductive capabilities.

But hunters managed to kill only 90,286 deer on Saturday and Sunday, according to preliminary DNR data. That's down nearly 27% from 123,090 deer killed during opening weekend last year. Hunters felled 46,866 bucks, down 30% from 2018.

As of midnight Sunday the DNR had sold 555,227 licenses that allow someone to kill a deer with a gun during the state's multiple fall hunting seasons. That's down 1.5% from opening weekend 2018 — as of midnight of that Sunday the department had sold 564,052 licenses — but it's impossible to tell how may hunters ventured out, or how much time they spent in the woods.

DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang attributed the dip in harvest totals on the lateness of the season.

Wisconsin's nine-day season always begins on the Saturday preceding Thanksgiving. Last year the season began on the earliest date possible, Nov. 17, during the height of the rut, when deer are moving as bucks look to mate with does.

This year Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 28, which meant the season had to begin on Nov. 23, the latest possible date. The rut has all but ended, meaning deer are bedding down and not moving as much as earlier in the month.

DNR officials said forecasts call for cold temperatures and snow in many parts of the state as the week goes on, giving hunters more opportunities before the nine-day season ends Sunday.

Jeff Schinkten, president of Whitetails Unlimited, a national deer conservation group based in Sturgeon Bay said he went out hunting Saturday and Sunday in Door County with his 11-year-old grandson. The boy shot a buck on Sunday but neither of them saw anything on Saturday.

The poor harvest totals were to be expected given that the rut is over, Schinkten said. Such scenarios are part of linking the season start to Thanksgiving, he said.

"Wisconsin is pretty strong on tradition," he said. "Anytime you mention (changing it) it's met with such resistance. There's still plenty of deer. I can still tell you getting in the tree stand with my grandson sure beats working. If everyone can shoot a 10-pointer every time they go out, it's meaningless."