Winter weather killed so many Wisconsin deer over the last two years that state officials plan to take the unusual step of recommending that no antlerless deer licenses be issued in the northern third of the state for the upcoming hunt.
A year without antlerless tags should help deer numbers build back up, said Kevin Wallenfang, the state Department of Natural Resources big game ecologist.
“It’s going to be a regrowth period,” Wallenfang said. “We’ve had two bad back-to-back winters.”
Wallenfang said he couldn’t remember a year when no antlerless tags were issued for such a large area.
DNR staff will make the recommendation to the Natural Resources Board at its May 28 meeting, Wallenfang said.
He said the recommendation would cover firearms and archery seasons over most of the 17-county Northern Forest Zone. Hunters with children, disabled and military-on-leave licenses, as well as tribal members still would be able to hunt antlerless deer, he said.
Based on a DNR tally of days with more than 18 inches of snow and days with temperatures below zero, this winter was the worst on record, Wallenfang said. The winter severity index and several other measures of how well deer overwintered are used to determine goals for the hunt, he said.
Since Jan. 1, nearly 40 percent of juvenile deer being tracked by radio-equipped collars in northern Wisconsin have died, compared with 33 percent in 2013 and 6 percent in 2012, said Daniel Storm, a DNR deer research ecologist based in Rhinelander.
In 2013, spring came so late that the fat reserves deer live on during the winter ran out before plant life started growing again, Storm said.
Adult deer mortality ranged between 7 percent and 15 percent over the last three years, he said. About 500 deer are being tracked.
Most are killed by predators, but lack of food makes deer less able to evade and escape, Storm said.
Tim Van Deelen, a UW-Madison wildlife ecologist who works with the DNR on research projects, said he understands why the state would cut back on hunting next year, but he doesn’t necessarily agree.
“Having a few years of lower deer populations might be a good thing,” Van Deelen said.
Populations of hungry deer are so high most years that the herd harms commercial tree crops, native plants and biodiversity, Van Deelen said. But the DNR must respond to the desires of hunters who will accept less doe hunting in the short run to have a bigger overall herd — including trophy bucks — for the long run, he said.
“Hunters agitate for more deer,” Van Deelen said. “People who wouldn’t be activists about anything else will crawl out of their hospital bed and crawl across broken glass to advocate for more deer.”
Van Deelen said deaths of juvenile deer have relatively little affect on future herd size, compared to deaths of adult does, which haven’t increased greatly.
George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said it may be necessary to protect antlerless deer for two seasons. He agreed that hunters would welcome restrictions in order to build the herd.
“People think of hunters as trophy hunters,” Meyer said. “The majority of deer hunters, that’s 600,000 people, the majority are just trying to bring meat to the table.”
Wallenfang said hunters surveyed by the DNR indicate that a successful hunt doesn’t depend on killing.
“People want to see deer,” Wallenfang said. “Seeing deer is the No. 1 measure of a quality hunt for people, and they’ve been seeing fewer and fewer.”
This is the first year of a new deer management system under which the state will set goals for generally increasing, stabilizing or decreasing the size of the herd by county, instead of setting numeric quotas in each of about 130 deer management areas.