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Prospects better for Wisconsin firearms deer season

Wisconsin hunters will be heading into the woods Saturday for opening day of the state's traditional nine-day firearms deer hunting season. Wildlife managers say there will be more deer in the woods this year after near-normal winters and conservative harvests in recent years. (file / News Tribune)1 / 3
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Wisconsin deer hunters take to the woods Saturday for the start of the firearms deer season and they should see more deer than in the past four or five seasons. (file / News Tribune)3 / 3

It won't be the good old days of Northwestern Wisconsin deer hunting, like way back in the early 2000s when hunters harvested more than 15,000 deer in Douglas County in one year alone, an all-time record that may never be broken.

But overall, the 2018 Wisconsin firearms deer season that begins Saturday should be pretty good, even better than 2017 which ended up the 16th highest buck harvest in Douglas County in 58 years of modern records.

In fact, the nine-day 2018 season — if the weather is good and hunters stay in the woods — should see a higher deer harvest than every season before 1987 and the best season since 2012 or so. The harvest likely will hit 5,000 deer after a kill of 4,554 last year in the county. That included 3,384 bucks, darn close to the goal of 3,500 bucks set by the Douglas County Deer Advisory Committee.

"We are pretty close to what we think the new normal should be, what the advisory committee thinks it should be,'' said Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager in Douglas County. "The goal is, and really always has been, to avoid the big peaks and valleys. But Mother Nature is still in control here. We mostly just work around the edges."

A scaling-back of antlerless deer tags in recent years and a string of mostly average winters have contributed to more deer in the woods across Northwestern Wisconsin, and that should be mean more deer hanging on poles at deer shacks across the region.

Despite a fairly long winter that included an April snowstorm, deer seem to have come through just fine, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologists say, thanks in part to a record warm May that brought a quick greenup and critical new food for the winter-weary whitetails.

Biologists said they found ample fat reserves on vehicle-killed deer they inspected last spring.

"Overall, the northern herd came through winter in good condition, which is a sign of a balanced deer herd that has enough habitat to support them,'' said Curt Rollman, the DNR's northern region wildlife biologist. "If a hunter does their scouting and puts in their time, they can expect ample opportunity in the north to harvest a deer."

Parts of Northwestern Wisconsin are in a "maintain'' population status, with the goal of keeping the deer herd about where it is now. Only one, Iron County, is still earmarked to increase the deer herd. A few areas to the south, are in a reduce status, trying to take more deer with extra antlerless tags available.

This summer's heavy rains apparently didn't have a widespread impact on the deer population, Kessler said. All that rain also helped spur a massive berry and nut crop, with hazelnuts and acorns plentiful for deer to fatten up on heading into winter.

"The deer herd in Douglas County continues to grow and a modest increase in buck harvest is expected this fall despite a long winter and heavy spring rains,'' Kessler noted in his annual deer forecast. "Several years of very low antlerless harvest and relatively mild winters have allowed the herd to grow to the point that the County Deer Advisory Council has recommended an increase in antlerless harvest authorizations for 2018."

In Bayfield County, a healthy deer population allowed extra antlerless tags, or authorizations, to be available, said Todd Nass, DNR wildlife manager for Bayfield and Ashland counties. But in Ashland County, the deer herd has not rebounded as quickly and antlerless authorizations or tags are only available on private land. The goal is to allow landowners to reduce deer numbers in agriculture areas while allowing the herd to grow in forested areas.

Those steps "should result in an increasing population in Ashland County, and a decreasing to stable population in Bayfield County,'' Nass said.

Bob Hanson, DNR wildlife manager in Burnett County, said the deer population appears to be better distributed in all parts of the county this year, not just in agricultural areas. He's predicting a bountiful deer harvest, both bucks and antlerless deer.

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