Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Optimism greeting Wisconsin deer-hunting tradition

Green Bay, Wis. — One of the most anticipated events of 2017 kicks off across the state Saturday, Nov. 18, and that’s the opening morning of Wisconsin’s nine-day gun deer hunting season.

Combined with a 10-day muzzleloader season and four days of antlerless-only deer hunting that immediately follow, that’s 23 straight days of blaze orange opportunity to put some venison in the frying pan.

Whether walking big woods or farm country, public land or private, chances are that most hunters are looking forward to the escape their daily routine and excitement that is a Wisconsin tradition for 600,000 sportsmen.

Like many with decades of hunts under their belts – and a strong passion for the longer, quieter bow season – former DNR wildlife biologist Tom Bahti said gun deer season is as much about family and friends as anything.

“Most of us have shot enough deer through the years that it’s more about the camaraderie, the family bonds, the friendship bonds,” he said. “Shooting a deer is the frosting on the cake.”

A decade has passed since Bahti retired after a 33-year career with the agency. In addition to often being the point man on controversial wildlife issues, Bahti also carried warden credentials, and has pretty much seen and heard it all. He retired early in 2007 as wildlife program supervisor for the DNR’s Northeast Region in Green Bay, never shying from expressing his opinion during his tenure.

An outspoken critic of the Deer Trustee Report process and what he calls deer mismanagement by legislative interference, Bahti – who bowhunts in Waupaca County and gun hunts in Marinette County – said taking away earn-a-buck and October antlerless gun hunts removed the DNR’s two most powerful deer management tools.

After a rule package based off the Dr. James Kroll report was announced three years ago, Bahti didn’t mince words.

“Sprinkling sugar on (feces) doesn’t make it a brownie,” Bahti said. “Scientific deer management in Wisconsin has now been dragged back to the early 1960s.”

Ending in-person registration, especially opening weekend of the gun deer hunt when DNR staff aged thousands of whitetails, is a concern, he said.

“Registration has always been a minimum number,” Bahti said. “My gut feeling is that there’s probably a lot more deer going unreported now, intentional or unintentional. The numbers are a bare minimum now.”

In a lot of farm units, deer populations are completely out of control, he said.

“It’s wonderful if you’re a deer hunter, seeing all those animals, but they’re just brutalizing the forest habitat,” Bahti said.

In broad areas of the north, it’s a different story. Back-to-back severe winters earlier this decade was extremely hard on the herd.

Despite controversial topics like baiting, chronic wasting disease, and wolves, Bahti said Wisconsin still has as incredible base of people who are passionate about deer and deer hunting.

“It’s woven right into the social structures of many families,” he said. “Deer make people crazy.”

How many hunters?

Even with recent declines in the number of gun deer hunters – last year’s count of 599,862 was the first time since 1976 that fewer than 600,000 licenses allowing gun deer hunting were sold – Wisconsin has one of the highest participation rates of hunters per capita and per square mile in the nation.

A record 699,275 licensed hunters were afield in 1990. Ten years later, 694,712 members of the blaze orange gang produced a then-national record harvest of 528,494, including nearly 172,000 bucks.

Numbers were still strong in 2001, when 688,540 licenses were sold. But uncertainty over a new disease changed that and fast. The 2001 fall season would produce the state’s first CWD-positive deer in the wild, and nearly 70,000 fewer hunters bought gun deer tags in 2002.

Sales rebounded to the 640,000-plus range the next six years, then began to fall. Besides the CWD “fear factor” year, the biggest drop took place after the severe winter of 2013-14, when nearly 25,000 fewer hunters bought tags. Sales jumped about 3,000 in 2015 but fell more than 13,000 last year.

Critics of the DNR during the Kroll review said numbers dropped because of rules like earn-a-buck, but the controversial practice was banned by legislative action late in 2011.

More recently, legislators ended in-person deer registration, eliminated back tags and – new this year – it’s no longer necessary to validate a deer tag or attach it to the carcass.

“The old cornerstones of deer management, there aren’t many left,” said Bahti. “It’s not that they had to put the fun back in deer hunting. Deer hunting has always been fun. The decline in hunter numbers is purely age demographics, and I don’t know the long-term solution, if there even is one.”

An avid hunter education instructor and learn-to-hunt mentor, Bahti said he’s encouraged by the fact that more females are taking up the sport, but he said the average age of hunters is getting older every year.

As for the increasing popularity of crossbows – and the controversy surrounding their inclusion in the entire archery deer season – Bahti said he’s never fired one, so he doesn’t have a strong opinion either way.

“There have been so many technological advances in archery since I started, and now crossbows, well they’re everywhere when you walk into a sport shop,” Bahti said. “If gun licenses continue to decrease and crossbow use keeps increasing, maybe that’ll at least be a partial saving grace for license sales.”

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