I was born and raised in Northeast Wisconsin. When I turned six, I began spending all summer and most weekends during the school year at my grandparent’s place on the edge of the The Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. By the time I started deer hunting when I was 12, I already knew quite a bit about the flora and fauna from the six previous years of being in the woods.
To me, hunting has always been an extension of being out in Nature, not a means to an end or the sole reason to be in the woods.
To this day, I spend a very small fraction of my time in the woods actively hunting to kill an animal, although most of the time I am still “hunting” (tracking, observing, stalking) without the intention of killing anything. I’ve always been more concerned with gaining knowledge than with taking something back out and this attitude, of course, influences my opinions on the current state of hunting. Ok, enough about me.
There were some changes to the regulations for this year’s Gun Deer Season. Most notable, were the elimination of carcass tags and the elimination of the minimum required age to purchase a hunting license. Back in 2016, back tags and in-person registration were eliminated in favor of electronic registration, either by phone or online. Evidently, this was done as a cost saving measure — back tags weren’t cheap and the DNR wanted to save money while keeping the cost of a deer license the same as it has been literally as long as I can remember (I know my license in 2006 was $24 – the same as it is now).
Many claimed that the elimination of back tags and in-person registration made it easier for cheaters to simply not register a deer and continue hunting with their still “unfilled” tag and I agreed with them. Many also complained about having to attach a flimsy paper tag to a deer in the field instead of the much more durable and weather resistant tags that used to be issued with the back tag. This I agreed with as well. I ended up laminating mine, but most hunters don’t have a laminator handy. The old back tags may have been a little more costly than the new way, but they worked fine for decades.
Honestly, I never felt inconvenienced by having to stop for a few minutes at one of the thousands of registration stations pre-2016 but now, the new registration method has been made more convenient than ever before. For 2017, the complaining about fragile paper tags was eliminated by simply doing away with tags altogether and now, poaching is easier than ever before. The point at which a law abiding hunter becomes a successful poacher is when they simply decide to not call in or e-register their deer once they get it to the privacy of their own home.
Wisconsin now officially runs on the honor system. I’ve hunted for over 35 years and yeah – most hunters follow the regulations, but there are a lot of hunters who will cheat at any given chance.
Another new change this year was the elimination of a minimum age for buying a hunting license. Until this year you had to be 12 to buy a license, 10 if you hunted under the guidance of a mentor. Of course, this created an uproar among people who dislike hunting in any form and said that now there would be thousands of 6-year-olds running around the woods unsupervised with guns. To be fair, there were already 6-year-olds hunting in the woods (but not thousands or even hundreds) and I believe 10 licenses were actually issued to infants, which even I think is silly.
Personally, I don’t think kids hunting are really any more dangerous than many of the adults in the woods. There is a reason why blaze orange has been a requirement since (I believe) the 1970’s. I see two realistic reasons for the elimination of the minimum age:
- It’s another victory for state and national hunting lobby groups who will take anything they can get and are unwilling to give even the most ridiculous inch.
- Extra tags for Daddy or Mommy.
The widespread gaming of the system by people who fill tags for every member of their family of legal hunting age is widespread. Now they can get a tag for the four-year-old and the newborn as well. Ironically, many of these tag hoarders are the same people who bitch about the “lack of deer”.
Now, I did hear a few guys say they liked being able to get a license for their 8 or 9-year-old because now they don’t have to wait until they’re 10 to get them in the woods. The thing is, a child can go in the woods as soon as they can walk. Comments like that really smack of the attitude that the only legitimate reason to be in the woods is to take something. As an aside – I have yet to see any blaze pink (legalized in 2016) out in the woods. But I’m glad the state legislature wasted valuable time correcting that injustice.
For my synopsis of the 2017 gun deer season, I’m going to talk about the Northern Forest Zone because I’ve never hunted outside this area and have very little experience with any of the other zones.
For the second year in a row, the deer harvest numbers have been down statewide but up in the Northern Forest Zone.
Buck kill was up 30% in 2016 and although we are still waiting on the muzzleloader, statewide antlerless hunt and holiday hunt numbers, the preliminary numbers are showing another increase.
This comes with the news this spring of a “record high” population of 930-950 wolves in Wisconsin.
Of course, this is a record high only since wolves were officially extirpated from the state in the late 1950’s. Historically there used to be over 5,000 wolves in Wisconsin. Of course, there will always be a very vocal number of wolf haters who claim the DNR’s numbers are cooked, that the real number of wolves is at least 2000, that these wolves have eaten all the deer and that it’s all a big conspiracy by the DNR, the insurance companies and PETA.
When asked for data to support their insane theories, these folks will cite barstool gossip, what some guy on LakeLink posted, and how much gunfire they heard during their 9-days-per-year sitting in the same tower stand they built in 1998.
Personally, I never have much trouble seeing deer in the areas I frequent, all of which have established wolf packs. In fact, I’ve seen more deer this year – especially from the beginning of the rut until just before the gun deer opener – than I have in ten years. Of course, around opening day activity dropped off dramatically, which has happened as long as I can remember.
It stands to reason that when there is a huge increase in human activity that the deer and other wildlife are going to react to that. I honestly think a lot of deer hunters don’t get this. So yes, activity dropped off significantly once the gun season began, but I still managed to see quite a few does and two bucks. Buck #1 was trotting away at the top of a ridge — a sketchy and unsafe shot, so I didn’t bother. Buck #2 I shot, and it was a decent six pointer. Nothing to brag about, but I don’t hunt to brag.
Of course, only a few days into the season I already heard and read other hunters complaining about the lack of deer and how it was “the worst season ever”. I think a lot of hunters these days end up disappointed for a combination of reasons:
First is the internet. If you go online to hunting message boards and Facebook groups and read dozens or even hundreds of other hunters complaining, you get the false impression that it really does suck everywhere. It’s the echo chamber – where likeminded people get together and reinforce each other’s beliefs, regardless of reality.
Second, it’s true that there are significantly fewer deer now than there were in 2000. However, it’s also true that there are MORE deer now than there were in 1980.
From about 1995 to about 2005 the deer herd was the largest it’s ever been. The problem is that many hunters (especially those who started hunting in that time period) consider that to be the new normal instead of seeing it for what it was: a completely unsustainable population spike.
That many deer simply cannot exist for long in a finite area with finite forage. It’s unfortunate that the rise of the wolf population since 2000 coincided with the return of the deer population to a more sane level. Many hunters with scant understanding of population dynamics see these two phenomena and immediately correlate them.
While I’m not going to deny that wolves and other natural predators are a factor in deer mortality, the part they do play is very small compared to major factors like severe winters (the record cold of 2013/14), lack of forage from overgrazing and human factors like Earn A Buck, T Zone hunts and an everflowing stream of doe tags. If you disregard the anomaly of 1995-2005 and look at the big picture, the deer herd in this state is fine.
Third is the sensationalism of hunting due to the rise of the Sporting Industrial Complex. When I was young, we had the local sporting goods store and Field & Stream. There were a couple impressive mounts at the store and there were photos of huge racks in the magazines, but we weren’t constantly bombarded with those images like today’s hunters are. Now, the local sporting goods store has been replaced by Cabela’s, where you can find a literal mountain of stuffed trophy animals along with a myriad of consumer items that didn’t even exist in 1980.
Field & Stream has been replaced by OLN, YouTube and thousands of Internet forums and Facebook pages where it’s hammered over and over that a huge rack by any means necessary is the goal. Hunters have become socially conditioned to the idea of trophy hunting.
The final reason is the commodification of hunting. When hunters spend all that money on expensive products that have become “necessities”, not to mention ATV’s and “hunting cabins” that rival many houses, they expect a return on their investment. When they don’t get that return, they feel cheated.
Since hunting became popular as a sport, it has always benefitted local economies (bars, hotels, restaurants), but only in the past 25 years has it blown up into a huge industry. The industry only cares about the environment insomuch as it can make money off it. They need hunters to spend money and they need more hunters. In turn, those hunters expect more and more game. It’s an amazingly unsustainable vicious circle.
Hunters don’t have the time to develop real understanding and appreciation of Nature because they’re too busy putting in overtime to be able to afford the modern hunting experience.
I think a lot of hunters would be better off to ignore all the commercialization and indoctrination and enjoy their time out doors during the gun deer season as well as the 365 days of the “off season” for what it is. We are blessed to live in such a beautiful state with so much wildlife and public lands. Folks need to get back to appreciating the woods instead of worrying about how much they can get from the woods.
(feature photo credit: Gabriella Ricci)