Letter from senator stirs NRB deer discussion

Madison – A letter to the Natural Resources Board from Sen. Russ
Decker threw board members into a fervent discussion about the need
for more deer research and the possibility of using federal money
to pay for the research.

Before coming to a conclusion, NRB members asked the board
chair, Christine Thomas, to contact Decker, D-Schofield, directly
in order to find out just what he was asking of the NRB.

In the letter to Thomas, Decker asked that the board direct the
DNR to use increased Pittman-Robertson funds to conduct research on
deer.

Decker said hunters and businesses have a lack of confidence in
the ability of the DNR to manage the deer herd. He said the DNR has
to gain credibility with deer hunters and businesses that depend on
them for income.

“I request that the board direct the DNR to allocate a portion
of the additional (PR) funds the state is receiving to pay for the
study. In addition, in order to have buy-in from sportsmen, they
must be involved in selecting the outside experts brought in to
perform the study,” Decker wrote.

Decker went on to suggest that the DNR work in tandem with
representatives of the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association, Safari
Club, Wisconsin Bear Hunters, and the National Wild Turkey
Federation to select the outside group to conduct the study. The
latter three groups are members of the Hunters’ Rights
Coalition.

Matt Frank, DNR secretary, explained that the DNR is in a
uniquely advantageous position because the money generated in
federal excise taxes has increased considerably this year due to
firearms and ammunition sales.

The PR money comes from a federal excise tax on the sale of
sporting arms and ammunition, which then is reallocated to states
for wildlife restoration and hunting safety programs.

“We are not counting on that increase in the future and will be
very conservative and cautious with that money,” Frank said. “Our
staff has been looking at how to apply that money and we are
getting close to making budget decisions on it. It is an
opportunity to do some of the research that we wanted to do.”

Frank indicated that the DNR also was dealing with its response
to the Legislature’s request for revision of the DNR’s deer
population goals and he believes public concern is broader than
just that request, that there generally is a lack of confidence in
the DNR’s deer population estimating tools.

“My thought is that we have nothing to hide in the DNR, and if a
third party were to come in to look at the numbers, we are
certainly open to that,” Frank said. “I don’t know that it is a
good use of the money to redo the SAK audit that we did four years
ago.”

Thomas asked DNR Wildlife Director Tom Hauge to review the
Sex-Age-Kill (SAK) audit that took place in 2005 and 2006 by six
expert panelists.

“We had five of the best biometricians out there that took a
look at our procedures,” Hauge said. The study cost the state just
less than $100,000, which is very similar to the cost of a similar
study that was made of the Pennsylvania deer program.

That review in 2005 was at the behest of then NRB members Herb
Behnke and Gerry O’Brien because hunters were losing faith with the
state’s estimations. The effort included questions asked by a
selection of stakeholders from hunting organizations.

“From a data collection standpoint, they felt that Wisconsin had
a very strong set of biological data that we gather and that it is
readily available to the public and anyone who wants to look at
it,” Hauge said. “They put SAK through a variety of computer
simulations and the one variable more so than anything else that
they said had a tendency to cause population estimates to fluctuate
was the buck mortality rate. That is one variable that we have to
indirectly estimate.”

To get a better estimate, the DNR has to undertake a significant
radio-tagging or marking project of bucks to get a direct estimate
of mortality, which would be very expensive.

The state did not have the money to do that back then. The SAK
panel also recommended combining some deer units to make them
larger, thus tightening up the precision of the population
estimates.

“The easy-to-do stuff we have done; it is the bigger stuff that
we didn’t have the resources to do,” Hauge said.

NRB member John Welter noted that the Conservation Congress had
an advisory question on the spring hearings on whether people would
support a $1 license fee to help pay for that kind of study, but it
was defeated.

The DNR normally receives about $8 million in PR funds per year,
and next year expects to receive about $4 million above that.

NRB member Preston Cole asked about the possibility of using
some of the extra money to help reduce costs of Conservation
Congress members to attend meetings, but there are requirements
specifying the money be spent on specific wildlife restoration and
hunter safety projects.

Frank said the DNR has been working on ideas for using the extra
funds.

“We want to be deliberate and be smart about how we spend the
money and make decisions on how to address some of those things we
wanted to do but haven’t had the money to do,” Frank said. He cited
the questions addressed in the SAK audit in 2006 and concerns
hunters have raised about predation.

“We are trying to pull these ideas together,” Frank said.

The major concerns that have come out of meetings have been the
buck mortality rate and predator impact on fawns.

Knowing that nationally respected researchers lauded the SAK in
2006, Clausen asked if the public would even believe a new
study.

At the suggestion of NRB_member Jane Wiley, the board directed
Thomas to ask Decker and what he wants studied. In the meantime the
DNR staff is working on deer research proposals that have not been
made public, but may provide answers the senator and deer hunters
are seeking.

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