ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Wisconsin hunters take advantage of deer overpopulation

I have a friend who describes deer hunting in Wisconsin with one word. "It's an extravaganza," he says. On the November opener of the 2000 Wisconsin firearms deer season, nearly 700,000 folks donned blaze orange, picked up a gun, and headed for t...

I have a friend who describes deer hunting in Wisconsin with one word.
"It's an extravaganza," he says.
On the November opener of the 2000 Wisconsin firearms deer season, nearly 700,000 folks donned blaze orange, picked up a gun, and headed for the woods. In the first two days of the nine-day season, they killed a record 200,000 deer. The state had an estimated 1.7 million whitetails prior to the 2000 hunt.
Wisconsin has so many deer that state wildlife managers go to great lengths to encourage hunters to kill them, just to keep the herd in check. They hold special, doe-only hunts, issue free antlerless tags, and even pay to process deer donated to feed the hungry. I heard of a 16-member northwestern Wisconsin hunting party that was licensed to shoot 48 deer this year. They kill so many deer that they've invested in a band saw to process the meat.
The mix of forest and farmland in Wisconsin provides habitat that can grow a lot of deer. For a number of years, the Wisconsin deer herd has hovered at a point where the ecological need to kill deer nearly outweighs the hunter demand for venison. Naturalists warn that over-browsing is eliminating some plant species from Wisconsin forests. Depredation, vehicle accidents and risk of Lyme disease are also problems associated with abundant whitetails.
As a result, Wisconsin deer hunters are in the catbird seat. If you use abundant game and ample public hunting opportunities as a yardstick, it is difficult to imagine better deer hunting than you'll find in Wisconsin. I hope hunters over there don't take this for granted.
The white-tailed deer is a remarkable animal. No other North American big game animal is as abundant or accessible to the average hunter. However, there can be too much of a good thing, as evidenced by Wisconsin's struggle with population control.
Many hunters, as well as members of the nonhunting public, want deer to be managed for abundance. Wildlife managers willingly accommodate this demand for deer. The success of deer management is measured in the annual harvest -- the higher, the better. Good deer hunting means lots of license-buying hunters -- and revenue for wildlife management.
When more licenses are sold, statewide hunting pressure increases, but hunters' expectations for success don't diminish. If anything, today's hunter has greater expectations than ever before. It takes lots of deer to meet the expectations of 700,000 hunters. Amazingly, Wisconsin's whitetail population satisfies this human demand and proliferates. Hunters and the hunted have yet to strike a balance. And that's why Wisconsin's wonderful whitetail hunting shouldn't be taken for granted. At some point, nature may trim the herd.
In Wisconsin's northwoods, occasional harsh winters devastate the deer herd and tip the scales of ecological balance. Could a catastrophic natural occurrence of similar proportions reduce deer numbers in Wisconsin's more temperate regions? Disease seems a likely candidate for such a catastrophe.
Biologists warn that high deer populations, increasing commercial trade in domesticated deer and the ecological realities of a landscape where deer, livestock and people live in close proximity sets the stage for an epidemic. The implications of a widespread disease outbreak among whitetails are chilling to consider. A deer disease could pose risks for other hoofed animals, or even humans, as evidenced by recent outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis in Michigan and chronic wasting disease in Colorado and Wyoming.
This is not to suggest that Wisconsin faces impending disaster. But there may be a fine line between the whitetail abundance humans desire and the overabundance that triggers natural catastrophe. Wisconsin has some wolves, bears and coyotes, but nowhere near enough to control the deer herd through predation. In the best interests of deer and people, the state's hunters must hold the line on whitetails.
Shawn Perich is an outdoors columnist for the Murphy McGinnis Newspapers.

What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.