Resources board approves SAK review

By Tim Eisele

Correspondent

Madison – The Natural Resources Board approved the report of the
citizen Sex-Age-Kill (SAK) Steering Committee that reviewed the
DNR’s formula used to estimate deer populations.

The report was based on an audit by six statistics and wildlife
modeling ‘experts.’

Mark Knoll, of Alma, served as committee co-chairman, and is
co-chairman of the Conservation Congress Big Game Study Committee.
Knoll told the board the six experts were a ‘dream team’ – some of
the best in their respective fields in North America.

Knoll said the committee ‘accepts and endorses the conclusions
and recommendations of the expert panel. We recommend that the
Natural Resources Board accept the audit of SAK.’

Knoll added that the DNR needed to convey the key elements of
the system clearly, and that it be distributed to deer hunters. He
also recommended that stakeholder groups review the experts’
recommendations.

‘It is urgent to get all hunters to believe DNR estimates so
deer populations can be brought down to, and maintained at,
manageable levels,’ Knoll said.

Scott Walter, associate professor of biology at UW-Richland
Center, provided comments on behalf of the Wisconsin Chapter of The
Wildlife Society. He said the chapter believes the estimates that
are within 25 percent of the true population, and 95 percent of the
time are ‘quite sufficient’ for accurate population management.

‘The chapter concludes that the SAK model Š has performed
adequately over time Š and recommends that deer populations in
Wisconsin be significantly lowered to unit goals to reduce the
negative impacts this ungulate is having on native vegetation and
other wildlife species,’ Walter said.

John ‘Duke’ Welter, board member from Eau Claire, noted the
recommendation suggested some deer units be consolidated. He asked
Walter what could change. Walter said the increase in sample size
from the larger units would be beneficial.

Greg Kazmierski, of the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Coalition, served
on the steering committee. He told the board that there were 12
conclusions that weren’t necessarily positive about Wisconsin’s use
of SAK.

‘Nothing in this report gives the DNR rave reviews for their
precision and accuracy of population estimates,’ he said. ‘The
panel has serious doubts about the validity of SAK estimates at the
unit level. This raises serious concern (because) here in
Wisconsin, all deer decisions are made at the unit level.’

Kazmierski said immediate responsible action should be taken by
the DNR to address the recommendations, or ‘the department will not
pass the believability test and (its) credibility will take another
step backwards when the facts in this report see the light of
day.’

Welter asked Kazmierski if he believed DNR deer numbers.

‘No, I believe we have a statewide number that is pretty close,
but we have serious problems at the unit level,’ Kazmierski
said.

Tim Van Deelen, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at
UW-Madison, deferred to the steering committee in making
recommendations about the report.

He did say, however, that the board could be confident that the
thinking and analysis behind the final report represents the ‘state
of the art and science’ available. He considers the experts ‘all
stars’ in big-game population estimation.

‘The review is a consensus of the six panelists and represents a
review of SAK use in the context of quota setting in Wisconsin that
is simply unprecedented,’ Van Deelen said. ‘It is truly a
remarkable effort and should be recognized as a singular landmark
in the evolution of Wisconsin’s deer management.’

He said it would be naive to believe the audit report would end
the controversy surrounding deer numbers in Wisconsin, and that it
did not satisfy all of the expectations of the stakeholders.

NRB chair Christine Thomas asked what larger management units
would mean to the average deer hunter.

Van Deelen said the downside of smaller units is that as the
sample size is reduced, the precision in the estimates gets
worse.

‘The panel is recommending aggregating the units into bigger
areas,’ Van Deelen said. ‘This gives you more precision, but there
is a cost, as it is less likely to reflect what you are seeing
under your treestand.’

Thomas noted that educating the public will be highly
important.

‘What the average person wants to know is what is happening
under their (deer) stand, and we are telling them how many deer
there are in the area instead,’ she said.

NRB member Dan Poulson said he’d participated in many deer
discussions over the years and believes the DNR reports on deer
numbers are accurate, and the board has done its best to monitor
the numbers.

‘There is the perception out there that something screwy is
going on, but I don’t understand it,’ he said. ‘I believe their
numbers. I can tell you from seeing the soybean fields that are
having the tops nipped, and I applaud the work being done.’

NRB member Dave Clausen echoed that, saying the DNR can please
some of the hunters most of the time and most of the hunters some
of the time, but it will never please all hunters.

Keith Warnke, DNR deer ecologist, discussed the concerns raised
by the committee, adding that this study really started with Deer
2000.

‘The stakeholders committee pushed us to do this, and the audit
affirms that the science used to manage Wisconsin’s deer herd is
valid, but we know that deer management is a lot more than science
– it is an art,’ Warnke said. ‘We hope to continue working with the
stakeholders to study these recommendations and identify
cost-effect strategies.’

He reviewed different conclusions, reiterating one conclusion –
that SAK is sensitive to changes in the buck harvest rate. Warnke
said the DNR has known that all along, which is why the DNR does
not use SAK in earn-a-buck (EAB) units; it uses an ‘accounting
model.’

Warnke said the DNR will examine the suggestion to consider
reducing the number of units.

‘The SAK audit affirms that scientific techniques used to
estimate Wisconsin’s deer herd are valid, but we all know that deer
management is a whole lot more than science. It Š blends science
and public credibility,’ Warnke said.

He added that SAK has shortcomings, but its beauty is that it
requires four inputs and also is an independent estimate from one
year to the next.

The board approved the SAK audit report unanimously and asked
the DNR to return to the board in August or September with a report
on what it has done in response to the audit recommendations.

The stakeholders included the Conservation Congress, the
Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association, the Wisconsin Bow Hunters
Association, the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs, the
County Forestry Association, the Wisconsin Bear Hunters
Association, the DNR, the Farm Bureau, the Wisconsin Wildlife
Federation, the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Coalition, Whitetails
Unlimited, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, the
Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the Wisconsin
Muzzleloaders Association, The Nature Conservancy, UW-Madison, and
UW-Stevens Point, plus a volunteer, Larry Gohlke.

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