Marlin Laidlaw took up bow hunting in 1958 and has been observing deer in Wisconsin ever since. If he’s correct, the 2015 firearms season that opens next weekend will deliver a bigger harvest with more distinguished bucks than last season’s down year.
In the big picture, Wisconsin is straining to boost deer numbers in its northern and central forests, where antlerless deer will once again be off limits to hunters in many areas. And in the southwest and other pockets of the state, Wisconsin’s game managers also are up against an ever-growing scourge of chronic wasting disease (CWD).
But for the upcoming nine-day gun season, a majority of hunters in the Badger State should reap the benefits of deer-friendly climate conditions over the past 12 months, Laidlaw said. Fawn production has been strong, and dynamic nourishment has fueled better antler growth, he said.
“All in all it could be a really nice year,” said Laidlaw, a member of the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club who also sits on the Big Game Committee of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress. “It’s definitely a more impressive buck herd” than the past two years.
Upward of 16,000 Minnesotans will hunt whitetails in Wisconsin this year at a cost of $160 per nonresident license. And in the 10 Wisconsin counties that hug the Minnesota border, hunters will likely take 50,000 to 55,000 deer — more than 15 percent of the statewide harvest.
Kevin Wallenfang, the big game ecologist for the wildlife management division of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said Wisconsin’s northern tier is still reeling from harsh winters that ran back-to-back before milder weather set in after the close of last year’s hunt. As in Minnesota, that means female deer get special protection in those areas in order to rebuild the herd.
Wallenfang said licenses issued in 12 northern counties this year prohibit the shooting of antlerless deer. That’s fewer “bucks-only” zones than a year ago, but improving herd size in the region will be the focus for more than this year.
“It’s going to continue to be harder than average in northern Wisconsin,” Wallenfang said.
Wisconsin’s annual harvest of white-tailed deer is roughly double the number of deer killed in Minnesota. The Badger State’s powerful carrying capacity for deer — more than 304,000 kills last year — is anchored in central and southern farmland belts that also contain ample wooded acres and unfarmed ridges.
The hopes for bigger-antlered deer this year were framed by the relatively mild winter and longer growing season that offered alfalfa and other vegetation earlier than normal, Laidlaw said. And based on his own observations over the years, moist summers like the one Wisconsin just finished are better for antler growth. In drought conditions, deer antlers can be underdeveloped and more prone to breakage, he said.
“Hunters who may have sat out the past couple of years are getting back into it,” Laidlaw said.
Wallenfang said a drastic change in deer management in the state has shifted significant authority to local trustees to set population goals on a county-by-county basis. In many areas below Hwy. 64, which runs easterly from the Stillwater Bridge across the state to Marinette, the local councils are seeing such an abundance of deer that hunters will again have the option to buy “bonus” tags to shoot more than one antlerless deer.
“Our farmland zones are very productive,” Wallenfang said.
Under state law, a portion of every bonus tag purchased by a nonresident is earmarked to fight CWD, an infectious disease first discovered in Wisconsin deer in 2002. Since then, it has been found in 18 counties with the biggest cluster directly west of Madison. In one pocket 40 miles west of Madison, DNR data indicate 40 percent of adult male deer in the area are infected. The same data reflect increasing prevalence of the disease elsewhere, and the state has disallowed hunters from baiting deer in 35 counties where CWD is a concern (limited baiting is allowed elsewhere in Wisconsin; see regulations). The ban is to hinder the spread of CWD, which is believed to proliferate when deer congregate at feeding piles.
DNR Wildlife Program Director Tom Hauge said the agency is targeting specific areas for surveillance because less money is available for monitoring and research. In 2002, when federal money came in, the state “pulled out all the stops” and gathered 40,000 test samples from deer. By last year, the number of samples had dropped to 5,460. This year, the number of tests will fall 26 percent to 4,000 — a threshold that has sparked critics to contend the state isn’t doing enough.
Even still, Hauge said, Wisconsin has more surveillance data on the spread of CWD in whitetails than any other state. “It’s been a significant investment,” he said.
This year marks Wisconsin’s first attempt at electronic registration of deer on a statewide basis, an option already in place in Minnesota. It also coincides with a recent ruling by a federal judge that gives Chippewa American Indians in northern Wisconsin the opportunity to hunt deer at night with rifles and spotlights.
But for all the chatter the unprecedented move will generate in the state’s deer camps, Wallenfang said the impact on the overall harvest will be scant.
“I know it’s frustrating to the overall hunters,” Wallenfang said. “This is not something that the DNR wanted.”
He said license sales heading into the season are even with last year. So, too, are deer kills registered by early bow hunters. Unless rain, fog or other weather conditions seriously limit opportunities, Wallenfang expects a 3-8 percent uptick in the statewide harvest compared to 2014, a down year. If so, Wisconsin’s increase would be similar to the upswing recorded in Minnesota.