The Wild Side: The history of deer management
February is the month when biologists across Wisconsin examine the deer population model and discuss potential antlerless deer harvest quotas for the 2012 fall deer hunting seasons. As the information comes together, we prepare to conduct our deer herd status meetings. For Deer Management Units in Oneida and Vilas counties, the meeting will be Tuesday, March 20, at 6 p.m. ,in the James Williams Middle School auditorium in Rhinelander.
How much do you know about Wisconsin deer management history? Do you know how or when the Deer Management Units began? How about antlerless quotas? Let’s go back a century. Granted, the first established season was in 1851, and deer hunting had been going on here long before that. By 1912 though, as a result of unregulated hunting and market shooting, deer were at record low numbers. Early records state deer were believed to be scarce or absent from central and southern Wisconsin. The first bucks-only season occurred in 1915, but returned to “any-deer” seasons through 1918, despite a very low deer population. The estimated 1919 deer kill was 25,152.
The 1920s saw the passage of a law closing the deer season every other year, which continued into the 1930s. The Wisconsin Conservation Congress formed in 1933, and helped the Conservation Commission develop its deer policy. Meanwhile, drought-induced forest fires and land-use changes resulting from the Great Depression improved deer habitat. Predator populations were extremely low following years of bounties. Deer populations in West Central and Northern Wisconsin soared up to and beyond what the land could sustain through the winters. Deer starved, and in 1934 a huge state-funded winter deer program began. Deer still continued to starve in large numbers over winter, in spite of supplemental feeding, and by 1940 talk turned to any-deer seasons to lower populations. The 1941 estimated gun deer kill was 40,403.
The ’40s saw deer harvest increase, and does and fawns were once again legal to harvest. The any-deer seasons of 1949-51 reduced deer populations in many counties; however, harvest control was almost totally lacking-hunters could go where they wanted and harvest their deer. After seeing years of closed seasons and harvest restrictions in prior decades, the suddenly hefty deer take was considered excessive and distasteful to Wisconsin hunters, conservationists and other citizens. The estimated harvest in 1950 was 167,911.
By the mid-’50s, the supplemental feeding program was ended. We had operated 100 deer seasons, and it was evident we still had a lot to learn. Managers lacked specific local population numbers, so the unit management concept was introduced in 1955. The state was subdivided into 77 units using highways and geographic features as boundaries. Deer range within units was measured with the use of aerial photographs. With the units established, it was possible to record deer harvests and monitor deer populations on a unit basis.
Wisconsin was now on its way to sound deer management; about the only thing still lacking was a method of restricting the antlerless kill. In the late ’50s, the wide-open party deer laws pulled down populations in numerous units. Registered gun kill in 1960 was 61,005, of which 25,515 were taken by party permit.
The resulting population decrease was accentuated by productivity losses resulting from a few fairly severe winters. Public dissatisfaction forced a return to bucks only in most of Wisconsin in ’61 and ’62. Wildlife managers sought a system that could provide harvest control and long-term stability of deer populations and harvests.
The legislature approved and enacted the variable deer quota law beginning in 1963, giving us the means to limit the take of antlerless deer. With conservative trial quotas and party permits in effect during this time, the population once again soared. We had mandatory registration, antlerless quotas, Deer Management Units, and the Sex-Age-Kill model in use by 1964. The harvest surpassed 93,000 deer, of which 28,000 were antlerless deer harvested using party permits in 32 management units.
The era of modern deer management was born.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.