MADISON — Tens of thousands of hunters will don blaze orange, suck in a breath of frigid pre-dawn air and clomp out to tree stands Saturday as Wisconsin renews its annual love affair with the nine-day November gun deer season.
But the romance isn't what it used to be. Two years of anemic hunts have left hunters — and politicians — disgusted with state herd control regulations they believe have dramatically reduced the deer population. Another weak season could mean drastic changes in the way the state's deer hunt is run.
"In terms of what the harvest is going to be, the answer varies across the state," said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former state Department of Natural Resources secretary. "I think it will be up over last year. (But) it surely isn't going to satisfy a significant number of hunters."
Deer hunting in Wisconsin has long been a part of the state's cultural fabric and has become a major economic driver. The DNR estimates deer hunting pumps about a billion dollars into the state's economy every year.
But hunters tend to view the DNR as a bureaucratic behemoth whose heavy-handed, confusing regulations suck the fun out of their sport, and their frustration has only grown as deer harvest totals slipped over the past decade.
"Ten years ago, when I talked to hunters, nine of ten were fired up about something. The last couple of years, I talked to nine out of ten hunters and they're mad about something," said Jeff Schinkten, president of Whitetails Unlimited. "There wasn't the same excitement in the air. They're disgruntled. How many times can you go out hunting and not see anything? How excited will you be to get up in the morning and sit in the cold again?"
The anger spiked last year after hunters killed less than 241,900 deer, down 30 percent from 2008 and 54 percent from 2000.
Hunters said the DNR had grossly overestimated the deer population and imposed draconian herd reduction strategies that devastated the deer population, including multiple fall hunts and the Earn-A-Buck program, which requires hunters to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck.
The DNR had warned hunters the harvest would be smaller because it scaled back Earn-A-Buck to chronic wasting disease zones, which meant hunters would kill far fewer antlerless deer. That explanation didn't matter to state lawmakers, who moved quickly to score points with the hunting community.
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They called an hours-long hearing last December to let hunters bash the agency, and Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, went so far as to demand the DNR fire every employee involved with deer management. Voters ended up firing Decker in this month's elections as Republicans seized control of the Legislature, but GOP lawmakers are no more sympathetic to the DNR.
The DNR responded to complaints with a $2 million project to better track the herd and agreed to limit Earn-A-Buck to chronic wasting disease zones again this year in an effort to re-grow the population. It's too early to know whether those steps will be successful, but an improved harvest could earn the agency some much-needed goodwill with hunters and legislators.
Whether that will happen is anyone's guess.
DNR big-game ecologist Keith Warnke said more deer have been spotted this year, but with Earn-A-Buck limited, he expected fewer antlerless deer to be shot. He said he couldn't make any overall predictions because much depended on hunters' patience and the weather.
Forecasts generally called for a gorgeous opening day Saturday, with sunshine, relatively calm winds and cool temperatures across much of the state. And much of Wisconsin could see some snow — a crucial aid in tracking deer — early next week.
Hunter turnout looked about the same as last year heading into opening day. License sales lagged behind last year's pre-opening day sales by about 5 percent as of Friday morning, but DNR officials expected to sell tens of thousands of licenses throughout the day.
Republican lawmakers are watching. State Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, who will likely be the next chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, said another weak harvest would spur support for Republican Gov.-elect Scott Walker's plan to return the state to just one hunt, the traditional nine-day November gun season.
"This year is really going to tell the story on where the deer numbers really are," Gunderson said. "If the hunt's as poor as it was last year. you're going to see a lot of pressure," Gunderson said. "Let's just put people back in the woods the way it used to be."