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Douglas County residents split on bucks-only season

A herd of over a dozen deer hang out in a field off of County Road U near Amnicon Falls State Park recently. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The divide at the Wednesday, April 17, meeting of the Douglas County Deer Advisory Council was clear.

On one side stood frustrated hunters and landowners from southern and western Douglas County. The deer herd hasn't recovered in their region, and from their perspective, a bucks-only season is the best option for 2019.

On the other side were residents from northeastern Douglas County, who are concerned about a burgeoning deer population they believe is in need of control.

"Two farmers asked me to come and plead this tonight — plead this," said Darrell Nelson, of Poplar.

Farmers in the region have struggled to protect their crops, he said, and they compare the deer to rats who are eating away their livelihoods.

Hunters have also noticed a growing imbalance in herd. Nelson said more antlerless tags must be issued to bring the buck-doe ratio back in line.

The council weighed comments from both sides before voting to amend its preliminary recommendation for a bucks-only season.

The new recommendation for the 2019 season sets the antlerless quota at 400 and authorizes 800 antlerless tags. The council voted to allocate 550 tags for private land and 250 for public land.

There was no change to the recommendation to authorize 200 tags for public land and 100 for private land in the Superior Metro Subunit.

"I really think we made a decision that wasn't the best by any means for either group, but it was about as good as we could do with what we had," said Al Horvath, chair of the Douglas County Deer Advisory Council.

"It's like if you've got a size 10 shoe and you've got to pick a size two or a size 20. It's just not going to fit."

If Douglas County could be subdivided to manage the northeast, south and west as separate units, Horvath said, concerns would be better addressed. The Natural Resources Board, however, declined to grant advisory councils the authority to subdivide counties in 2018.

"We are going to revisit it at the Deer and Elk meeting," Horvath said. "It will be a main topic I bring up."

Douglas County was one of only three counties in Wisconsin to propose a 2019 bucks-only season at its preliminary meeting March 20.

The recommendation sparked a strong reaction.

More online public comment forms were submitted for Douglas County than any other county, and members of the advisory council received a flood of calls and emails.

The majority of online respondents (57 percent) agreed with the proposed antlerless quota of zero, but a large segment was strongly opposed. About 25 percent of respondents felt the quota was "much too low," and another 16 percent rated it as "too low."

Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife biologist, said those results mirrored the feedback he received.

"I don't know I've had 12-15 people come to me to ask for more antlerless permits in 28 years of doing this," Kessler said.

During the preliminary meeting March 20, Kessler reviewed herd data and said an antlerless quota of between 0 and 1,200 would allow Douglas County to meet its three-year population objective of increasing the herd.

There was general agreement for a bucks-only season at that meeting, said Erik Finstad of Wascott. He urged the council to keep the antlerless quota at zero despite the results of the online survey.

"Online voters were not here for (Kessler's) report," he said. "They were not here to see that a zero quota would only (lead to) a 4 percent increase."

Finstad also drew attention to the dip in last year's harvest numbers.

The total buck harvest in Douglas County was down nearly 14 percent in 2018 compared to 2017. The 19 counties in the Northern Forest region saw a 5 percent decrease in the buck harvest as a whole.

For the 2019 season, however, Kessler said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the outlook for the herd.

He has not come across deer carcasses in the woods, nor has he received reports from anglers who usually discover dead deer along the Brule River at this time of year.

"I don't think the winter had as much impact as last year or the year before," Kessler said.

With the new antlerless quota of 400, Kessler believes the county would still see 1 or 2 percent growth in the deer population.

"We're hoping that people will allow these tags to be used where there are deer problems and they definitely need to take some numbers down," Horvath said. "Hopefully, the majority will be. I think our hunters usually make good choices and do the right thing, and I trust they'll do that to the extent possible."

The council voted to allocate nearly 70 percent of the available antlerless tags to private land in the hopes landowners in the northeast will use the tags.

Nelson wasn't optimistic.

"People couldn't get a tag last year, and we'll have half as many this year," he said.

The advisory council approved 950 antlerless tags for private land and 950 for public land in 2018.

The Natural Resources Board will consider the 2019 CDAC recommendations and give final approval at its May meeting.

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