Greg Kessler misses talking to deer hunters.
For most of his 27-year career as a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources — he's stationed at Brule — that's what Kessler did on opening weekend of the state's gun deer season. He would usually hang out at JT's One Stop convenience store in Solon Springs, where a lot of Douglas County hunters went to register their deer.
But for the past three years, with electronic registration of deer, hunters no longer have to register their deer at businesses all over the state like JT's. And Kessler misses the contact he once had with hunters.
"You'd get a flavor of what they were seeing, how they thought the herd was doing and how the hunt itself was going," said Kessler, 54. "It was quite a social event. I chatted with quite a few hunters from that part of the county."
With permission from hunters, Kessler and other DNR biologists across the state would examine deer that hunters had taken. By looking at tooth replacement and tooth wear characteristics, biologists could determine a deer's age.
"With that, we could look at the age structure of the herd," Kessler said. "We didn't have to send (teeth) to a lab and wait three to six months at a minimum."
Traffic was typically good, Kessler said.
"Depending on the year, it could be 150 to 200 hunters coming in with their deer," he said. "In good years, maybe 300."
For many years, on the second weekend of Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer season, Kessler would do the same thing at the Brule DNR headquarters, talking to more hunters. Kessler concedes that the hunters he spoke with represented a small sample of the estimated 10,000 or more hunters in the county. But it was still valuable.
"I'd see many of those hunters for 20-some years," he said. "Their families would come in with them. They wanted to know how the hunt was going, whether what they were seeing was typical ... I feel less connected to what's going on out in the woods without those contacts."
For some hunters, conversing with Kessler might be the only direct contact they would have with a representative of the DNR. Invariably, they had questions beyond deer hunting.
"A lot of it was about the wolves, and 'What are you going to do about them?' " Kessler said. "But generally speaking, it was a happy occasion: Someone in their group had gotten a deer."
Hunters can still engage the DNR, though less directly, at public meetings and through online surveys. But even at meetings, there is less time for one-on-one conversation, Kessler said.
These days, Kessler and other biologists still examine deer and their dentition. During deer season, Kessler makes the rounds of several deer processors in his area who allow him to look at the teeth of deer brought in by hunters.
"Our goal is to (look at) 175 bucks and 175 antlerless deer for every county in the state," he said. "I do run into a hunter every now and then at processors. But it's five or 10 a year instead of five or 10 an hour. It's certainly the end of an era."
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.