Wisconsin hunters overwhelmingly insisted the state maintain its traditional nine-day gun deer season centered around Thanksgiving Day in voting last month at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ annual spring hearings.
By a nearly 3-to-1 margin, the hunters and outdoor enthusiasts voted down a proposal from the state Department of Natural Resources to more than double the length of the season from nine to 19 days.
The vote — which was done entirely online this year for the first time, as opposed to in person at meetings in all 72 counties, because of the COVID-19 pandemic — was 42,208 to 14,820. A second question, proposing a 16-day gun-deer season starting in mid-November, was shot down by a margin of more than 2-to-1, 38,106 to 15,599.
“Wisconsin’s sporting community are traditionalists,” said Wisconsin Conservation Congress chair Larry Bonde. “They want that traditional nine-day Thanksgiving deer season, and they’re not going to let it go.”
The vote was doubtlessly greeted with cheers by other outdoor enthusiasts — bikers, hikers, dog-walkers and others — who stay clear of woods, fields and state trails during the gun-deer season out of an abundance of caution, and were not enthusiastic about seeing the season double in length, cutting into their own outdoor activity time.
The spring-hearings survey is not binding on the Natural Resources Board, the policy-making board of the DNR, but the lopsided vote creates a high bar for the agency to make a change in the season, and perhaps even legislation. Conservation Congress voters also rejected a proposal to return to the “Earn-A-Buck” system that required hunters to take a doe before they were allowed to shoot a buck as a way of decreasing the size of the deer herd. Earn-a-buck was immensely unpopular because it meant hunters sometimes had to pass up a shot at a buck if they hadn’t taken a doe already.
That leaves the Natural Resources Board and the DNR with a rather daunting challenge as to how to best manage the size of the state’s deer herd.
Wisconsin is coming off a poor hunt in 2019 and the size of the state’s deer herd is likely at a record high. Hunters killed 288,025 deer across all seasons last year, down 14 percent from 2018. The nine-day gun season saw a 23.5 percent drop-off, going from 219,715 kills in 2018 down to 168,091.
The gun hunt last year was plagued by an unusually late start (tied to Thanksgiving), heavy snowfall in the northern part of the state and a lot of standing corn in the fields which gave the deer more cover.
The deer herd, meanwhile, had been growing on the backs of several mild winters — although this year there was some heavy snowfall in the northern part of the state. In 2014, according to the DNR, the state deer herd was estimated at 1.09 million after the hunt. By 2018 it had risen to an estimated 1.8 million, post-hunt, and last year’s kill was down 50,000 deer.
Another fact: Many hunters are aging out of the sport. Total gun deer license sales to Wisconsin residents have dropped nearly 20 percent over the past 25 years.
The Conservation Congress hearing vote may have been a voice favoring tradition, but it also left the DNR with few arrows in its quiver to control the state deer population even as it struggles to deal with chronic wasting disease.