By Kevin Binversie | Wisconsin Reporter
For many Wisconsin residents, the week of Thanksgiving isn’t just part of the annual gun deer-hunting season, it is a rite of passage. It is a time to capture a trophy buck, and a chance to pass on respect for the land.
But the relationship between Wisconsin deer hunters and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been on shaky ground for some time. Mistrust is high.
Hunters believe the agency has impeded their abilities to get a trophy deer with programs like “Earn-a-Buck,” where hunters had to shoot and kill an antlerless deer before they could go after a more prized buck.
Gov. Scott Walker has worked to reform the system. That, along with the rest of his agenda, of course, got caught up in the tangled politics of the recall election.
First, Earn-a-Buck was eliminated by a law passed by the Legislature and signed by Walker in November 2011.
Then, Walker brought in James Kroll, one of the country’s top experts in the deer herd management.
Walker’s critics immediately latched onto Kroll as a weapon in their fight to recall the governor. They called him — cleverly — Walker’s “Texas Ranger.” Kroll’s work in Texas and other states became radioactive, as the governor’s critics tried to sway the votes of hunters, a heavy-handed tactic for which they earned PolitiFACT’s notorious “Pants on Fire” rating.
Now the smoke of recall has cleared, and Kroll has produced what might be one of the first commonsense documents to come from DNR in years, if not decades.
After nine months of looking at DNR’s current practices, Kroll released his findings on the state’s deer-management practices in a report Tuesday. His recommendations look as if they can be a solid road map for hunters and DNR to preserve Wisconsin’s hunting traditions and ensure the accuracy of all agency data.
For starters, Kroll points out what many have long believed: the Wisconsin DNR system of using a “Sex-Age-Kill” or SAK Model to estimate deer herd, in use since the 1960s, is outdated. His team also pointed out that while SAK has a solid reputation in the more than 20 states that use it, the Wisconsin DNR may have been over-sampling in recent years. This has led to recent inflated estimates of the size of the state’s deer herd.
Kroll’s team also pointed out that DNR may have little to no knowledge of the true spread of Chronic Wasting Disease in Wisconsin. CWD is a contagious and degenerative brain ailment that occurs in elk, deer and moose, causing brain lesions and weight loss. It was first discovered in Wisconsin 2001 and efforts to stop its spread have been a top priority.
Kroll’s team concluded the state’s current CWD plan is too aggressive and unreasonably punishes hunters. Instead, a more passive approach may work in affected areas as well as a better sampling protocol designed to chart the true progress of the disease and detect its spread.
Other ideas Kroll’s team suggested were:
- Using “Charlotte the Deer” as a way to educate the public about CWD;
- Establishing an antlerless permitting program for the state’s public lands;
- Applying more effectively modern technology like GIS and GPS inside the agency;
- Having the state’s Conservation Congress — the advisory board where any resident can comment on proposed DNR policy — more involved on the local level regarding deer-management issues.
Many of Kroll’s recommendations relate to improving communication between the public and DNR. He says hunters may be asking too much of the agency — that simply buying a hunting license for this year’s season doesn’t guarantee one trophy buck per hunter, and simply scapegoating the agency for not bagging one goes too far.
For the all the anxiety Walker’s critics generated around Kroll’s arrival, it’s pretty clear many of his recommendations make sense and should be considered. For better and worse, DNR is the only option for hunters regarding such things as herd management, the spread of CWD and maintaining the state’s hunting traditions.
Kroll’s recommendations are a commonsense attempt to reset the balance between DNR and hunters. It would be wise for the state to implement many of them as soon as possible.
Veteran political blogger Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native. He served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous state Republican campaigns, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at [email protected].