Wisconsin’s first crossbow season for white-tailed deer helped generate a record archery buck kill of 46,201 and a record 275,417 licensed bowhunters in 2014.
Of that buck kill, regular archers accounted for 30,433 (66 percent) and crossbow hunters 15,768 (34 percent).
Even so, the combined kill of bucks and antlerless deer with archery gear fell 7 percent from 2013 (87,628) to 81,701, ranking it 14th in the state’s deer hunting history. That’s because the 2014 antlerless archery kill was 35,500, a 23 percent decline from 46,111 in 2013, ranking it 17th all-time. The 2014 archery antlerless kill was also the first time since 2002 that it fell below 41,700, and only the second time it fell below that mark since 1998.
And although the 2014 archery buck kill set a record, it wasn’t by much. The previous record was 45,988 in 2012, or 213 fewer bucks. The archery buck kill exceeded 45,000 two other times: 45,562 in 1999 and 45,498 in 2003.
In case you’re wondering, the combined firearms/archery deer kill also declined in 2014, falling 11 percent to 304,289 from 2013 (342,631).
Bucks made up 56.5 percent of the 2014 archery kill, accounting for 59 percent of the crossbow kill and 55.5 percent of the regular bow kill. In comparison, bucks made up 44 percent (97,196) of the firearms kill (222,588). Further, the combined gun/archery buck kill in 2014 was 143,397, of which 68 percent was by gun-hunters
And here’s a head-scratcher the Department of Natural Resources can’t explain: The crossbow kill in the DNR’s “northern forest” region was 4,446, nearly equal the kill in the “southern farmland” region, 4,676. Meanwhile, among regular archers, the northern-forest kill (5,160) was roughly a third of the southern farmland kill (14,723). For firearms hunters, the northern forest produced 26,629 deer, a little more than half as much as the southern farmland (50,360).
DNR license data also show the combined 2014 sales of firearms and archery deer licenses declined by 17,150, or 2 percent, despite the boost from crossbows. The decrease was largely in gun licenses, where sales plunged nearly 25,000 (4 percent) to 609,779 from 2013, the lowest figure since 1976, when the DNR sold 589,590 gun licenses. Think about that: For the first time in nearly four decades, gun-license sales nearly sank below 600,000.
Meanwhile, the record archery-license sales marked the fifth straight year this category increased. After setting the previous record, 266,435 in 2008, archery licenses slid to 254,014 in 2010 before increasing steadily to 266,380 in 2013, and then rising by 9,037 (3.4 percent) to the 2014 record.
Although 2014 was the first year hunters of all ages could hunt with crossbows, roughly 17 percent of bowhunters used a crossbow in previous seasons. Crossbows could be used by anyone 65 and older, or those issued a disabled-hunter permit. However, the DNR had no way to track how many deer crossbow hunters killed until 2014.
A DNR analysis of the inaugural crossbow season found some data worth monitoring. In no particular order:
-- 71 percent of first-time hunters buying a crossbow license were not yet 18.
-- The mean age for crossbow hunters was 52, while the mean age for regular bowhunters was 38.
Veteran researcher Brian Dhuey in the DNR’s wildlife bureau said the age data for license buyers suggests crossbows might be most effective at retaining hunters.
“That first year suggests crossbow hunting might add 10 to 12 years onto the average bowhunter’s career,” Dhuey said. “It will be interesting to see if that continues.”
-- Of the 649,131 individual hunters who bought a deer license of some sort (firearms, archery or crossbow), 108,765 (17 percent) were licensed to hunt with crossbows. This included 42,788 who bought a crossbow license, 18,416 who bought an archery license and a $3 crossbow “upgrade,” and 47,561 who bought a conservation patron license.
-- Only 7,930 hunters bought just the crossbow license, which was 7.3 percent of crossbow-license holders and 3 percent of all licensed archers.
-- Of the crossbow-only archers, 36 percent bought an archery license in 2013; but 32 percent bought no deer license in 2013, 20 percent bought gun and archery licenses in 2013, and 10 percent had not bought a deer license for nine or more years.
-- Although females accounted for 11 percent of all license purchases, they favor archery gear, and are more likely to buy a license that restricts them to one weapon type than a combination of bow and gun types. Females, for instance, accounted for:
18 percent of crossbow-only licenses;
16 percent of regular-archery only licenses;
17 percent of crossbow and regular-archery licenses;
14 percent of gun-only licenses;
7 percent of gun and crossbow licenses;
6 percent of gun and regular-archery licenses;
4 percent of gun, crossbow and regular-archery licenses.
-- 27 percent of hunters who bought gun and crossbow licenses in 2014 hunted only with a gun in 2013.
-- 67 percent of hunters who bought gun and crossbow licenses in 2014 hunted with a gun and archery gear in 2013.
Given 2014’s big mixed bag of data on license sales and deer-kill data, it’s tough to predict how crossbows will affect Wisconsin deer hunting and license-buying trends this autumn and in future seasons.
All that’s certain is that crossbows are here to stay. In fact, they’re now as much a part of deer hunting in Wisconsin as the .30-06, deer camps, record-book bucks, blaze-orange clothing and chronic wasting disease.