Who would’ve thought that five years into our supposedly simplified “new era” of deer management that lawmakers would wait until after the season starts to abolish Wisconsin’s 116-year-old carcass-tagging law?
Then again, this is deer hunting, an activity in which every participant knows what’s best for the herd and 600,000 other hunters, and every deer-hunting politician thinks their plan is so superior they need not explain it publicly before making it law.
In this case, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, chairman of the Assembly’s Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage committee, inserted provisions into the 2017-19 state budget to eliminate carcass tags for deer and turkeys, and registration for Canada goose kills. Wisconsin began selling deer licenses in 1897, and had required hunters to attach a carcass tag to their kills since 1901.
Kleefisch neither issued a press release about his plans, nor held a public hearing on them before requesting the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee include them in the budget. He did, however, discuss his ideas during a January meeting with representatives of hunting and fishing organizations.
When Gov. Scott Walker signed the state budget Sept. 21 — five days after the archery deer season opened — Kleefisch’s provisions became law. The state had already sold and issued several-hundred-thousand deer licenses and tags by then, and so the Department of Natural Resources scrambled to explain the new laws and update its 13-page “frequently asked questions” on deer hunting, http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/hunt/documents/Deer_FAQ_2017.pdf.
When contacted Monday, Kleefisch conceded he should have handled things differently to ensure more public awareness and less chaos, and said he would work more closely with the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in the future. He said, however, the changes wouldn’t have disrupted hunting season if the budget had passed on schedule instead of nearly three months late.
Although hunters no longer must attach carcass tags to deer and turkeys, they must still register their kills before 5 p.m. the next day by telephone or online with a computer or smartphone. Further, they can register their kill before leaving their stand or blind; or drag it from the woods and haul it anywhere they please, just as long as they meet the registration deadline.
Todd Schaller, the DNR’s chief warden, said hunters must still carry their driver’s license or Go Wild conservation card when hunting or keep the information available on their smartphone. Although they no longer must carry their DNR carcass tags, they will need each tag’s authorization number to register a deer or turkey.
Schaller suggests carrying the tags to keep that information handy for registration. Then, after receiving the registration’s confirmation number, consider writing it on the tag to ensure you don’t use it again.
Kleefisch said he wouldn’t have pushed his changes through if the DNR hadn’t switched from durable Tyvek carcass tags to home-printed paper tags in 2016. He called the switch a “disaster,” especially because last year’s tags required hunters to carry a pen or pencil to validate them. The seven-citizen Natural Resources Board approved an updated paper tag in March that hunters could validate by tearing or slicing, but Kleefisch said it still required hunters to deal with flimsy materials.
“It’s time to bring deer registration into the 21st century,” he said.
New age or not, Kleefisch’s rule package isn’t unique. Although Wisconsin is the first big Northern state to eliminate carcass tags for deer hunting, Connecticut and New Jersey don’t use them, and Kentucky abolished them several years ago. Further, most Southeastern states never used them, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina. In Canada, only British Columbia doesn’t require carcass tags.
In fact, several states, including Michigan, don’t require deer hunters to register their kills. Others not requiring registration are Texas, Kansas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina and Saskatchewan.
Kleefisch said most hunters he talks to like the changes, and he is confident most hunters will continue registering their deer. Wisconsin began requiring deer kills to be registered in person in 1953, but switched to e-registrations in 2015. DNR studies indicate compliance rates have remained above 90 percent the entire time. Hunters who violate deer-registration laws face fines of at least $343.50.
WCC chairman Larry Bonde said some hunters fear the new rules will make it easier for poachers to kill deer, but he hasn’t found a current conservation warden who agrees.
“I haven’t met any law-enforcement person having huge heartburn on this,” Bonde said. “They assure me they have many other means to catch poachers.”
Schaller said DNR game wardens can quickly verify online whether hunters are properly licensed, and if they’ve registered deer in their possession. He concedes cellular service can be spotty in the coulees of southwestern Wisconsin and remote regions of the North Woods, but law-enforcement vehicles have signal boosters, and wardens know the best spots for strong connections.
Besides, Schaller doesn’t think the changes will affect future deer populations or hunting.
“Our concern last year was all the confusion over paper carcass tags,” he said. “Hunters didn’t know when, why or where to attach them. This change eliminates those concerns. It’s simpler all around.”
Meanwhile, former assistant chief warden Rollie Lee, who retired in 1998, thinks the change makes law enforcement more difficult, and reduces the deer’s status as Wisconsin’s premier game animal.
“Wardens will still emphasize compliance and work hard to protect the resource, but their job just got tougher because of this,” Lee said. “Their plates are already full, and now deer will get little more protection than small game. Eventually, wardens will gravitate to things that used to be low priority during gun season.”
Kleefisch said he believes most hunters are law-abiding and will keep helping the DNR enforce the laws.
“If the new rules don’t work, and we start documenting problems with our deer herds, I’ll be the first to acknowledge it and try to fix things,” he said. “We’re human. We don’t always get everything exactly right the first time.”
Fair enough, but that reinforces the need for lawmakers to conduct their business openly and thoroughly in public forums. This was not a crisis requiring immediate action.