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Wisconsin firearms deer season forecast: About same as last year

Deer populations have shifted to areas with crops and away from deeply forested areas.

whitetail buck
Wisconsin's storied nine-day firearms deer hunting season starts Saturday, Nov. 19, with prospects for hunters in northwestern counties as good or maybe a little better than recent years, according to DNR wildlife biologists.
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR
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BRULE, Wis. — Deer hunters in Northwestern Wisconsin this season should find a slowly growing deer herd and hunting opportunities about the same as the last few years.

Whether more of the same is good or bad news may depend on exactly where you hunt when the state’s nine-day firearms deer season starts Saturday, Nov. 19.

Areas near agriculture land will probably see more deer and definitely have more antlerless permits to use. But deeply forested areas with less food available for deer will see another year of lower deer numbers.

“Our deer population can vary dramatically within 10 or 20 miles. That’s why hunters who are able to be mobile will stand the best chances,” said Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist for Douglas County.

deer
Wisconsin's nine-day firearms deer hunting season starts Saturday, Nov. 19. Deer numbers should be up some from recent years in many areas of Northwestern Wisconsin.
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR

Douglas County is especially prone to widely fluctuating deer populations because of its topography. In the north, in areas of clay soils where most of the county’s farmland is located, deer numbers continue to be fairly high, and extra antlerless permits were available this year, especially on private property.

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The farmland mixed with woods in the north offers better nutrition compared to the county’s areas of sandy soils dominated by scrub oak and pine.

Wisconsin deer harvest.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Overall, antlerless or doe permits are up 40% in the county — on recommendation of the County Deer Advisory Committee — from 1,200 in 2021 to 1,675 this season. Of those, 1,000 are for use on private property with 675 for public land.

Kessler said some hunters this year pushed for even more antlerless permits, namely those who hunt on or near farmland and who have been seeing more deer. Meanwhile, hunters in more forested public lands, especially along the more swampy western edge of the county, have generally been unhappy with lower deer numbers.

Wisconsin opening day deer season buck
Jay Burfield, of Bennett, Wis., drags out the eight-point white-tailed buck he shot during Wisconsin's 2018 firearms deer opener north of Solon Springs as his father, Tom Burfield, brings up the rear.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Douglas County saw deer harvests as high as 11,241 as recently as 2007. But a string of harsh winters since then and an accompanying decline in antlerless permits have combined to push the harvest down, as low as 2,396 in 2014. The harvest has rebounded some to 3,897 in 2020 and 3,491 last season.

Kessler said that an unprecedented string of warm winters and good habitat led to the record-high deer populations of the early 2000s and unprecedented deer harvests. It’s unlikely deer numbers, or hunter numbers, will ever be as high again.

Short of that, the DNR tries to keep a balance between too many deer and not enough, using antlerless permits as the primary management tool and hoping Mother Nature cooperates.

Douglas County deer harvest.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

“Especially statewide, those numbers were just not sustainable from a biological point of view,” Kessler said. That’s when deer were causing major problems munching on farmland and damaging forests with over-browsing as well as causing record deer-vehicle collisions on roads.

The DNR issued more antlerless permits in an effort to bring the deer herd down, and it worked — maybe too well in some areas.

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“The numbers still haven’t bounced back in parts of the county as much as some hunters would like,” Kessler noted, adding that the official goal for Douglas County is to increase deer numbers.

deer, whitetail
Wisconsin's nine-day firearms deer season starts Saturday, Nov. 19, with a few more antlerless deer permits in Douglas County.
Contributed / Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

The Douglas County Deer Advisory Committee, with Kesller’s support, has been fighting to have the county divided into two deer management units to reflect the dramatic difference in deer habitat and populations. So far, the state’s Natural Resources Board has not approved that split.

Farther east, in Bayfield County, the official goal is to hold deer numbers steady. But this year, the Natural Resources Board decided to override the County Deer Advisory Committee and local DNR recommendations and drastically cut antlerless permits. The board cut the recommended antlerless quota for public land from 2,750 to just 500, an 82% reduction.

“Apparently, the board heard from some constituents who thought there weren’t enough deer on public land to warrant that many antlerless permits,” said Eddie Shea, DNR wildlife biologist for Bayfield and Ashland counties.

Wisconsin deer season is highlight of the year for big camp in Bayfield County.

Bayfield County has 8,250 antlerless permits on private land this season.

Much like Douglas County, and indeed the entire North American range of whitetail deer, Shea said deer in Bayfield County thrive more on farmland than deep woods.

“Agricultural lands have more food, more calories available for deer, and that tends to support higher deer populations,” Shea said.

Bayfield County saw a high of 11,390 deer harvested in 2007, but that dropped to 2,253 in 2014 after harsh winters and reduced antlerless permits. The number rebounded to 4,541 last season, about the same as 2020.

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Wisconsin deer 1kYc7JIS1b9Idb2dUe7_HLngdD2x69jvs_binary_1717027.jpg
Naomi Finstad, left, hunts with her father, Erik Finstad, near Gordon during Wisconsin's 2018 gun deer opener.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

Jeff Pritzl, the DNR’s deer management program supervisor, said he expects the statewide Wisconsin deer season to play out “pretty much the way it has the last couple of years,” with continued high deer numbers in the state’s agricultural areas. While antlerless permits are gobbled up in a matter of minutes when they become available over summer for Douglas County, for example, there are still antlerless permits available for southern counties.

Pritzl noted that while the state may have more than 1.5 million deer combined, the population can vary dramatically, even within regions.

“Deer are unevenly distributed across the landscape,” he said, noting why some hunters see more deer and some far fewer.

Weather and declining hunter numbers are blamed for statewide deer harvest declines.

Crossbows change hunting demographics

More and more Wisconsin deer hunters are archery hunting, either in addition to firearms hunting or instead, according to the DNR.

Last year, more than 250,000 people purchased a bow or crossbow license in the state. Most of them also hunt with firearms and are part of the 560,000 firearms licenses sold. But about 50,000 exclusively archery hunt, said Jeff Pritzl, the DNR’s deer program supervisor.

The number of firearms deer hunters who bow hunt increased from about 33% to nearly 50% over the past 20 years in large part after crossbows became legal for anyone who wants to use them. They had previously been allowed only for elderly hunters or those with physical issues.

crossbow
Crossbows have become more common in Wisconsin since rules were relaxed allowing anyone to use them during the archery deer hunting.
Contributed / Wisconsin DNR

The popularity of crossbows, which are easier to use and even more lethal than traditional archery equipment, has impacted the firearms season, DNR officials note.

Crossbow and archery season begins in mid-September and continues through December, offering hunters more options to be afield during nicer weather compared to the traditional nine-day firearms season over Thanksgiving week.

The archery/crossbow season also overlaps with the rut — deer mating season — when deer tend to move more and bucks are often less wary. The rut is usually over by the time firearms season begins.

“I know of one camp, not far from my house, that used to be a die-hard gun season camp, but now they are hunting earlier. They are there in late October, early November when the weather is better and the rut is going on and they are using crossbows instead of their gun,” the DNR’s Kessler noted.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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