No gun-related deaths were reported during last year's Wisconsin deer season. But that doesn't mean hunters should let their guard down.More >>
MADISON (AP) -
It's that time of year, when people across Wisconsin clear their calendars, oil their rifles, don the blaze orange and head into the woods.
The state's beloved gun deer season returns for another nine-day engagement starting Saturday at dawn. Men, women and children will take the long car ride up to the north woods. They'll reconnect with old friends. They'll spend hours shivering in tree stands. They'll share tall tales over beers. And running through it all will be a renewed sense of excitement.
Not only have state wildlife officials scaled back the despised earn-a-buck program for a third straight year, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill earlier this year outlawing the requirement nearly everywhere.
Hunters have been complaining about earn-a-buck for years. In areas where the DNR imposed the requirement, hunters couldn't legally shoot a buck until they'd first killed an antlerless deer. The idea was to kill does and hamstring the herd's ability to reproduce in those areas.
"Earn-a-buck was just one of those things getting crammed down people's throats. I think that was at the heart of where the hunters' anger was," said Jeff Schinkten of Sheboygan, president of Whitetails Unlimited. "The atmosphere seems to me, I don't want to say a 100 percent turnaround, but we're in a better place than we have been over the last three or four years ... I think (scaling back earn-a-buck) has got people excited again."
DNR officials contended the requirement was necessary to reduce car-deer crashes and preserve crops and forest growth.
Hunters believe the DNR has inflated its deer population estimates, leading to policies such as earn-a-buck. They said the program forced them to pass up too many trophy bucks and so thinned the herd the future of their $1 billion sport was in jeopardy.
After a weak harvest in 2008, the DNR suspended earn-a-buck everywhere except in southern Wisconsin's CWD zones. But the 2009 harvest was even more anemic, and hunter frustration boiled over.
Walker, a Republican, promised during his campaign to eliminate earn-a-buck and other herd control hunts.
The DNR, conscious of the tension, suspended the program outside CWD zones again last year. This year the DNR went a step further and eliminated earn-a-buck in CWD zones, too, although the agency will still require hunters in those areas to kill an antlerless deer before they can take their second buck.
Regardless, Republican legislators crafted a bill this spring to outlaw earn-a-buck everywhere. Walker signed the measure into law this month, saying he also hunts and was frustrated with earn-a-buck. It goes into effect Saturday.
"That's something hunters asked for. One would presume they're happy their requests were heard and acted upon," said DNR spokesman Robert Manwell. "It certainly creates a more traditional season-type structure. You'd think that would increase satisfaction."
A strong harvest this year would validate hunters and lawmakers and relieve some of the political pressure on the DNR. Tom Hauge, director of the DNR's Bureau of Wildlife Management, said the stage is set for a decent tally. All signs indicate the deer population has grown over the past year and many farm fields have been harvested bare, leaving deer little cover, he said.
But eliminating earn-a-buck doesn't automatically equate to a great harvest.
Weather conditions will be a huge factor in how much time hunters put in. Opening day forecasts called for rain across much of the state and snow in the far northwest, which could make for good tracking conditions up north but a chilly, wet outing for many other hunters.
"Even dedicated hunters lose their resolve if it's nasty out there," Hauge said.
Another factor is how many hunters hit the woods. Hunters had purchased 503,930 licenses qualifying them for the season as of midnight Thursday, down about 14,422 licenses, or 3 percent, from the same date last year. But many hunters purchase their licenses on the Friday before the season starts, and Manwell said those numbers aren't yet available.
"I think it's very important that things come out well this year," said James Kroll, a Stephen F. Austin State University deer researcher the Walker administration has hired to vet the DNR's deer management strategies. "There's a little more excitement out there because of what happened with earn-a-buck. That's done a lot. But basically if I can put into one phrase it would be, wait and see."
Ed Harvey of Sheboygan, a former chairman of the Conservation Congress, an influential group of sportsmen who advise the DNR, already has his week mapped out: he'll be in the woods Saturday with his two sons and granddaughter, again on Sunday, then on Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and the following weekend.
"There was hardly a dry eye," he said of when Walker signed the earn-a-buck bill. "Getting rid of earn-a-buck was supported just about unanimously everywhere."
Schinkten, of Whitetails Unlimited, plans to head out with a long-time hunting buddy. His friend's 13-year-old grandson, a first-time hunter, will tag along.
"I sense a little less tension in the air right now," Schinkten said. "Not everybody is going to shoot a 10-point buck, but for the people who get them, there will be some electricity in the air."