A harsh winter leaves few deer for hunters
Many Oneida County hunters left deer camp this year empty handed.
The 2014 season saw a return to a buck-only hunting policy, which was an indicator to some that the season would be a slow one.
“We could have predicted—we did predict—that the numbers would be down,” said Roger Sabota, an avid hunter in the Northwoods.
After one of the worst winters on record for many parts of the state, including Oneida County, the deer herd is at one of the lowest points its been in recent years.
“So far, the dip that I’m seeing in this area is consistent with what I expected, based on simply looking at winter severity’s impacts from last year,” said Jeremy Holtz, a wildlife biologist for the Wisconsin DNR.
The DNR take readings each winter to determine what the call the winter severity score. For every day that the temperature reaches below zero degrees in a 24 hour span, they add one point. Similarly, any day the snow depth is equal to or greater than 18 inches, another point.
Last winter, Oneida County’s winter severity was 141, and the average across the Northwoods was 149—the highest Holtz has ever experienced.
“We’ve been collecting this data for decades,” Holtz said. “That gives us a lot of good information on how severe the winter is from the deer’s perspective: difficulty in movement, difficulty in finding food, difficulty in staying warm. So if we collect at least 100 points, we know that we’ve got a very severe winter, and the deer are going to suffer.”
Holtz said that once the severity reaches 100 points, they estimate at least 25 percent of the herd will not survive. Some areas in the Northwoods had even higher scores, like 174 in Trout Lake and 166 in Park Falls. A harsh winter puts a lot of stress on a population as a whole—especially one that’s already been declining for years.
“The overall picture is the harvest has gone down over the last ten years,” Holtz said.
It started in 2000, when the deer herd was so big—over 17,000 deer killed during that season, as opposed to the approximately 4,500 in 2013—the DNR actually put a plan in place to lower the population.
“The population across the state was above our established population goal, and we needed to bring that population back down,” Holtz said.
“Now what we’ve seen is a couple of severe winters back to back… that really impacts things like over-winter deer survival and fawn crop the following spring.”
This year the nine-day season finished with a harvest 21 percent lower than the previous season.
Now there is another plan in place, to increase the deer herd over the next three years. It began this year, with limiting antlerless tags, or tags for doe and adolescent deer.
“This year is the first year we’re managing on a county basis,” Holtz said. “So last year Oneida county was part of probably four or five management units, and this year Oneida County is it’s own unit.”
A big part of the new system is the establishment of County Deer Advisory Councils, or CDACs. These councils will make recommendations on how to manage the deer population.
“The design was that the CDAC would have members that represent set interests,” Holtz said.
The councils are populated through a self-nomination process. There are seven positions, each representing a group such as tourism, forestry or agriculture. The group meets in public session to discuss ways to approach deer management.
“It can be kind of hard, it gets pretty controversial,” said Ed Choinski, the Oneida County CDAC chair, representing the Conservation Congress. “Mother nature plays a big role in this. We could do everything, we can think of every option, even down to the science of it, until mother nature rears its ugly head.”
The CDACs are meant to bring a broader view of deer management to the conversation. Holtz said they will look at more than the biological information he deals with, but will take into account all the different factors—car strikes, ag damage and more.
“This year’s the first year that we’re going to full implementation and a change in how we manage our deer,” Holtz said. “So it’s a little tough for me to speculate where we’re headed, because it’s not simply a biologist or a DNR decision.”
CDAC implementation comes along with the release of the Deer Trustee Report, which was a statewide effort to evaluate the deer management system. The report spawned many changes, which can be explored in detail on the DNR website.
“This year I saw three deer in eight and a half days. We usually end up killing three or four bucks. This year no bucks,” Sabota said. “I’m exceedingly worried. Deer season is a special time for a lot of us.”
Oneida County’s CDAC will meet on Dec. 9 to go over the season stats, and will meet again in March with ideas for next year’s season. The public is encouraged to attend and give input on their experiences this year.