By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Tom Hauge’s voice-mail message Friday summed up the passion hunters hold for Wisconsin’s nine-day, gun-deer season.
“TGIF, and happy deer hunting eve,” Hauge, bureau director for the state Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Management Division, exuberantly said. “I’m going to be in the office until mid-morning and then I’m actually going to be starting my deer hunting weekend.”
The DNR official will join hundreds of thousands of hunters descending on Wisconsin’s vast woodlands this weekend, tracking a herd estimated to number in excess of 1.16 million.
And in most places around the state, bucks will be the first target, thanks to passage of a law earlier this year ending Wisconsin’s earn-a-buck program.
Hunters have long loathed the program that required the killing of antlerless deer before harvesting a buck.
DNR officials have pushed earn-a-buck as a critical herd management tool, particularly in zones where chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is at its highest. The deadly disease is highly transmittable among the herd.
Some Democrats in the Legislature this fall criticized the change, arguing that the law was an unnecessary giveaway by Republicans to a small group of constituents. They said ending the program would boost the deer population, negatively affecting agriculture and some industries.
The latest license figures, however, show the strength in numbers of the deer-hunting lobby, so to speak.
A total of 503,930 gun-deer licenses were issued statewide as of the end of the day Thursday, and another 207,956 archery hunt licenses went out, said Linda Olver, assistant deer and bear biologist with DNR.
The numbers are off just a bit, representing about 98 percent of licenses sold last year, Olver said.
“There definitely appears to be people excited this year that there is no earn-a-buck,” she said.
DNR has in recent years suspended earn-a-buck outside CWD zones, and this year the agency modified the program inside CWD units.
Beginning next year, earn-a-buck is bagged everywhere.
The fall session was a fairly busy time for hunting-related legislation.
Beginning Saturday morning, hunters may transport long-barreled firearms — shotguns, rifles and the like — in their vehicles without a case, as long as the guns aren’t loaded.
The law also allows hunters to load and discharge a firearm, bow or crossbow from a stationary, non-motorized vehicle that is not attached to a motor vehicle.
“With the new law, we asked for a correction,” said Tim Lawhern, administrator for the DNR’s Division of Enforcement and Science. “Historically, it has been illegal to hunt from a hay wagon, unless you took a wheel off or put in on blocks.”
Hunters also may place a loaded firearm on the vehicle, as long as the vehicle is stationary.
The package of bills, winning support from both parties, is intended to make the hunt more enjoyable and build on a sport that is estimated to bring $1 billion annually into the state.
For many, though, it’s more than a sport — it’s a religion, ranking up there with Green Bay Packer fandom.
“We’ve all watched the Packers and know hunter orange is third Packer color,” Lawhern said of the droves of Packer fans who show up at Lambeau Field decked out in blaze orange hunting attire.
Want to learn more. See the frequently asked questions on the law changes here: