Madison -_Coming on the heels of a 2009 gun season deer kill
that saw a “soft-number” drop of 29 percent in overall harvest from
last year, DNR wildlife biologists are looking at aerial surveys
and buck mortality studies as just a couple ways the agency can
improve its deer management scheme.
In the meantime, the DNR pulled its proposal for a 16-day deer
season in 2010 and is working with legislators to review hunter
comments on the deer season.
“We’re certainly going to do what we normally do in evaluating
winter, reviewing aging data and registration information, but
we’re already doing some things differently,” said Keith Warnke,
DNR deer ecologist. “Some of it we started doing even before this
season. We’re collecting more information from hunters through the
new stub where we asked hunters for the number of deer they saw and
the number of hours they hunted so we can develop a sighting index,
based on information from registration stubs and on-line entries.
We also have a question on the DNR web site and on the stubs so
hunters can rate the weather conditions on the days that they
“We do have – and this was in the works last year – a research
project that is cued up to begin this winter, on distance
sampling,” Warnke said. “We fly over a given area and use a
statistical method of counting the number of deer that are seen.
That will be another tool to help us validate the population
estimates that come out of our models. I’m not sure yet which areas
will be flown, but they will probably be primarily farmland units
where earn-a-buck has been in use.”
The DNR also is looking for ways to get a firmer grasp on buck
mortality rates and buck harvest rates. Both figures play a big
role in the accuracy of the DNR’s Sex-Age-Kill deer population
formula. That was recognized by the team that audited the SAK
formula a couple years ago.
“We’re working right now to build a foundation and identify the
resources to support that project. It’s in the planning stages,”
Warnke said. “We’re looking for outside help in the form of raising
money and involving deer hunters to participate in some fashion.
The entire design has not been laid out yet, buy it may involve
hunters working with local biologists and researchers. We also will
collaborate with one or more universities.”
Beyond that, Warnke said wildlife biologists will carefully sift
through harvest data from this past season and previous seasons,
along with taking a more critical look at current and past the
Winter Severity Index information, to begin formulating a plan for
the 2010 deer seasons.
DNR wildlife biologist in Iron and Ashland counties, Bruce
Bacon, of Mercer, already has started looking back at WSI data.
Bacon said the DNR did not give the back-to-back severe winters
“enough credit” in causing mortality. He came to that conclusion
after comparing data from this decade to the back-to-back severe
winters from 1995 through 1997.
He said consecutive severe winters appear to have a more
dramatic impact on the herd than severe winters that are followed
by a mild winter.
“From 1973 through 1995 we did not have back-to-back severe
winters,” he said.
Bacon also has noticed that in some winters snow depths remained
at 16 to 17 inches for nearly three weeks before snow depths hit
the 18-inch mark that counts one-point-per-day toward the WSI
“Should we give half a point for conditions like that? That’s
something we can take a look at,” he said.
As wildlife biologists consider that kind of information this
winter, Warnke said any season framework for 2010 “will be
reflective of deer populations out there.” However, don’t expect
the DNR to automatically agree with groups, such as the Hunters
Rights Coalition, that last week demanded the DNR go without
herd-control measures for five years.
“Deer populations in some of the very productive units are going
to grow rapidly,” he said.
Warnke did say the DNR is willing to take another look at
predation and how that might figure into fawn survival and
recruitment. He said any predation should show up in the annual
summer fawn-doe surveys, but those surveys usually aren’t tallied
until September or October – too late to play a role in setting
antlerless quotas for that season.
“I’m really interested in overall fawn population dynamics
because of their role in herd growth. Predation is a part of that,
and may well have an impact on fawn recruitment. That being said,
we do measure fawn recruitment every year,” he said.
“If there is a lot of it (fawn loss) coming from wolves, we
can’t do much about it under the current system. If it is there, we
would see a drop in buck harvest and (if the buck harvest
is)_lower, our reaction would be to lower antlerless harvest – we
would have to reduce hunters’ share to leave more deer out there to
try to keep herd numbers up. It’s the same way we would respond to
any population decline,” he said.
As for fears that the state’s larger-than-expected bear
population is taking too many fawns?_Warnke said the DNR increased
kill tags in 2009 by about 65 percent from the previous year, so
this year’s bear kill is the highest ever, although final numbers
are not yet available. He also expects the DNR to offer even more
kill tags for the 2010 season, so the bear numbers should start
moving down toward goal in two to three more years.
“We’re taking bear permits to the Natural Resources Board in
January for approval, and it’s possible that we will ask for an
even higher number of permits than last year. The way we’re going
to approach that is to put permits out there and measure through
success rates and nuisance complaints when we’re at the right
“We’re also planning in 2011 to start another round of the
tetracycline project,” Warnke said.
That project will allow the DNR to update its bear estimate.
The DNR also may take another look at over-winter goals and
redefining what is considered deer habitat, but Warnke wants to
remind hunters that the agency already has been working in that
“That’s what our Dec. 17 meeting with the Legislature was for,”
he said. “The Natural Resources Board approved our winter goal
changes that increase goals in 13 units, and decreased goals in a
couple of units. The difficulty there is achieving the proper
balance with what the landscape can support over the long-term.
What kind of agriculture concerns there are, ecosystem changes,
concerns for car/deer crashes – balancing all of that.
“We’re also open to looking at changing the definition of what’s
considered deer range. That, as well, particularly applies to
farmland regions. We’ll be talking about that with folks.”
The DNR’s preliminary harvest numbers are based on call-in
reports from registration stations, and those numbers change
between now and the end of January when all of the stubs will be
tallied. Early harvest numbers were not available last week for the
10-day muzzleloader season, nor the four-day December antlerless
season, according to Jason Fleener, DNR assistant deer
The preliminary tally for the nine-day season came in at 195,647
deer. That includes a buck kill of 86,251 animals, and an
antlerless tally of 109,396.
The preliminary harvest count in 2008 was 276,895 (98,840 bucks
and 178,145 antlerless deer).
That’s a decrease of about 29 percent from last year.
That means hunters registered the fewest deer in 27 years. The
last time the buck kill dropped below 90,000 was in 1980. The
all-time high gun season buck kill was 171,891 set in 1995.
The antlerless kill was lower than last year because some units
went to bucks-only seasons and other units saw decreased antlerless
“This year, in response to hunter input, we moved 29 units from
earn-a-buck to herd-control status and 38 units from herd control
to regular unit (buck-only) status. The total number of regular
units grew from 21 in 2008 to 59 this year.” Warnke said.
In February, DNR biologists will compare unit-level harvest
numbers against over-winter population estimates and will adjust
the recommended season structure for 2010 to address any
Iron County example
Bacon has looked at early numbers, by county, from around the
state. The buck kill, based on call-in numbers that could change,
dropped 45 percent in Florence County, 43 percent in Lafayette
County, and 39 percent in Iron County.
“In northern counties we can blame winter, but what do you blame
in Lafayette County? And, the drops were pretty consistent across
the state,” he said.
Deer registration began in 1953. From 1953 through 1986, hunters
killed fewer than 400 bucks each year in Iron County. The worst
year for buck kill was 1973, when 191 bucks were shot.
Iron County’s best year was in 2001 when 1,446 bucks were
Based on call-in reports, the Iron County buck kill dropped 39
percent (less than 400 bucks), and is on top of a 37-percent drop
from 2007 to 2008.
“We’ll likely have low quotas or buck-only hunting next season,”