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2000 Will Be A Make Or Break Deer Hunting Season, According To UW-Madison Wildlife Ecologist

Wisconsin hunters face a record deer herd and an unprecedented opportunity this fall.

They also face a hefty responsibility.

Hunters are the main predators (along with cars and a few wolves) of deer in Wisconsin. This year, the state”s 700,000 deer hunters will become part of an all-out effort to downsize the state”s deer herd.

State wildlife managers and the Wisconsin Deer 2000 study group have concluded that there are too many deer in many parts of Wisconsin. Insurance claims adjusters and many farmers would agree with that conclusion. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources agrees too, and this fall anyone who buys a deer hunting license will receive a regular tag and two free T-zone antlerless permits. In addition, meat processors participating in Wisconsin Deer Donation 2000 will process donated deer, at no extra charge to hunters, for distribution to food pantries.

A lot of people are serious about reducing deer numbers this year, says Scott Craven, a wildlife ecologist and chairman of the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That”s because deer-related problems – car crashes, crop damage and ecological impacts – are all peaking, he says.

The number of people hurt or killed in car/deer crashes hit a record high in 1999; six people died and more than 800 were injured, according to Wisconsin Department of Transportation reports. Deer collisions now account for more than 16 percent of all reported crashes, compared with about 5 percent 20 years ago. People reported about 20,000 collisions to the DOT, but DNR carcass pickup statistics show that more than 40,000 deer were killed last year. Add an unknown number of injured deer that crawl away from the roadside, and you wind up with a pretty big number, Craven points out.

The state paid about $1.3 million in deer crop-damage claims last year. The payments exclude the first $250 in damages for each claim, according to Laurie Fike of the DNR”s Wildlife Damage Abatement and Claims Program. Many farmers sustain crop damage but don”t file claims, she adds.

More people are realizing the impacts of a large deer herd on native plant communities, forest regeneration, and the many other species sharing the environment with deer. “Deer 2000 got a lot of people thinking,” Craven says. “Realization and evidence is building that deer have significant impacts on the structure and composition of plant communities, which affects everything from small mammals to salamanders to songbirds.”

For example, a recent study by the Department of Wildlife Ecology showed that an unchecked deer herd significantly altered the vegetation in bottomlands of the Wisconsin River, reducing species richness and structural diversity. Don Waller”s group in the UW-Madison Department of Botany has documented extensive and long-lasting deer damage to tree regeneration and understory plant diversity in the Wisconsin northwoods.

Deer problems will probably never disappear, but they can be managed. “The only way to have no problems with deer is to have no deer, which isn”t an option – it”s not possible, and not desirable,” Craven says. “Deer are very popular with both hunters and non-hunters, and very important to the state economy.

“So the DNR is caught between a variety of competing interests – insurance companies, farmers, hunters, wildlife watchers, and so forth. The views of all these groups are factored into setting management unit goals. If the state herd was at these goals, these problems would be at tolerable levels.”

The problem is that the herd is way above these goals in many parts of the state, and this year we”re seeing the cumulative effects of several years of skyrocketing whitetail reproduction.

Why so many deer?

Recent mild winters have caused little or no winter mortality in northern Wisconsin. In the south, where winter rarely affects deer survival, farms, rural houses, woodlots and habitat fragmentation have been wonderful for deer, though not for some other species. “We have excellent habitat for a very prolific animal; therefore, the population thrives,” Craven says.

(Wisconsin isn”t alone in this regard, he adds. Much of the eastern United States is seeing increases. Urban deer management is now a major concern in many areas, and areas that once were cornfields and woodlands now include parks and backyards, and plenty of deer enjoying the suburban smorgasbord.)

Hunters haven”t killed enough deer in recent years, for a variety of reasons. If the reasons were cost of permits, lack of permits, season length, or freezer space, they”ve been corrected this year, Craven says. Antlerless permits are plentiful (and free in Zone T units), there will be several different seasons in most parts of the state, and a statewide donation program (see sidebar) will allow hunters to donate deer to charitable food pantries.

“If a large deer herd is going to be reduced, the only viable tool is the hunting season. The opportunity is now here. Time will tell if hunters will do the job,” Craven says. “We won”t accomplish this in one year, but we need to be able to say at the end of this deer season that we”ve turned the corner, and taken enough deer to start a reduction in the herd down to management goals.”

This year”s free T-zone tags are the carrots, but future seasons may carry sticks if herd numbers don”t decline in the next couple of deer seasons.

“I think we”ll continue to see liberal hunting opportunities until goals are reached, and then we”ll have the more traditional seasons, with buck tags, hunter”s choice permits, and some bonus permits,” Craven says. “If we don”t make progress in the next two seasons, then the options become limited, and not very palatable to hunters, given their reactions to past options like ”earn-a-buck.” They can”t provide much more opportunity than they”re doing this year. The next escalation could be very limited buck hunting – a does-only season in some management units, or more earn-a-buck seasons, or options yet to even be discussed.”