DNR considers 900-acre enclosure for deer study

Presque Isle, Wis. — A 30-year experiment to determine how heavily deer of different population levels browse forest vegetation is planned for a 900-acre area in north-central Vilas County south of Palmer Lake, but first the DNR may have to determine whether it can ban hunting, fishing, and trapping in order to create fenced enclosures on this land.

What was known as the Hovel Tract, and since has become the Ontonagon Block, was purchased by the DNR, with Natural Resources Board approval, in June 2009 with the use of Stewardship funds. The “green sheet” for that NRB meeting states that the Hovel Tract would remain open to all hunting, fishing, trapping, skiing, and hiking.

At that time, the DNR bought 1,103 acres from the Hovel Revocable Trust for $2,096,000.

Then came the Deer Trustee Report that suggested the DNR study white-tailed deer browse impact on forests, although similar studies have been conducted in Wisconsin and neighboring states in the past on public and private lands. Wisconsin’s Sandhill Wildlife Area near Babcock has seen similar studies. More recently, a private forestry company with extensive holdings in Florence County fenced some of its lands for three years to study deer impact on forest regeneration.

In pursuing the DTR plan, the DNR identified the Ontonagon Block as a possible study area and mentioned as much in a Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest master plan amendment that went to the NRB in October 2013. Although the green sheet for that meeting noted that the Ontonagon Block would be suitable for such a study, the DNR, at that point, did not seek NRB permission to block hunting, fishing, and public access from the proposed 900-acre study site for the 30-year life of that research project.

Last week, during interviews by Wisconsin Outdoor News with a number of DNR personnel on the public access question, there seemed to be some confusion as to whether the October 2013 NRB approval of the state forest master plan amendments also constituted permission to ban public access on that 900 acres. The DNR’s Teague Pritchard, of the Bureau of Forestry, and Doug Haag, acting DNR real estate agent, said they will investigate that question.

In the meantime, the agency is slowly moving ahead with the idea of fencing off 900 acres in several compartments to track deer browsing. If all goes as planned, the DNR’s new deer researcher, Dustin Bronson, of Rhinelander, will head up the study.

“Within the study area, areas of different sizes will be fenced to develop deer populations of low, moderate, and high density as well a several areas with no deer present for control,” Bronson said. “We’re still in the planning stage. There will be three areas of low deer density, three areas of medium density, and three areas of high density, along with three areas of no deer.”

Low-density populations would consists of about 16 deer in a 120-acre enclosure. Moderate density would have up to 28 deer in a 90-acre enclosure, and high density would have 40 deer in an 80-acre enclosure.

The exterior fence would be 10 feet high, but may be set at 8 feet with 2-foot overlay on the ground. When asked about double fencing, Bronson said he would urge double fencing, but didn’t know if it would be approved, given the additional cost. With the long timeline of the experiment and the unknown rate of chronic wasting disease spread, he was been urged to consider double fencing.

There would be no effort to either exclude predators or introduce species such as foxes, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, or bears, but the fence would be patrolled to correct any openings that might allow deer inside to get out, or deer outside to get in.

“All deer within the study area will have global positioning systems (GPS) to determine their locations daily,” Bronson said. “Free-ranging deer outside the area also will have GPS units.

The main focus of the experiment will be to develop data on how known deer populations impact vegetation and how that can be applied to different forest management activities in hardwood forest areas of northern Wisconsin.

“For instance, in a single 120- acre enclosure there will be an area of no cutting, single tree cutting, acres with 60-foot gaps, trees with 120-foot gaps, and a number of acres clear-cut for early succession forest,” he said. “How deer impact regeneration of both ground and woody stems will be followed in the various vegetative practices.”

A public presentation on the proposed experiment will be presented at the Boulder Junction Community Center, with the date to be determined. 

All public hunting would be excluded from the 900 acres.

Wisconsin Outdoor News Editor Dean Bortz contributed to this report.

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