Aim for the does, state urges hunters
As deer gobble crops, DNR says booming herds need thinning

By DON BEHM
dbehm@journalsentinel.com
Posted: Aug. 11, 2006

As Wisconsin's white-tailed deer population swells to nearly 1.7 million this summer, state wildlife managers are asking hunters to embrace a herd control strategy similar to the one advocated by Marquette County grain farmer Kevin Coddington.

Kori Coddington keeps a sharp eye out Thursday for deer feeding on beans in her father-in-laws corn and soybean fields near Montello. Farmers who file wildlife damage claims with the state are allowed to shoot deer to prevent extensive damage to corn and soybean crops.

"You just keep shooting does," Coddington said when asked how he has reduced crop losses caused by hungry deer.

Shooting deer has become just another farm chore for the 54-year-old Coddington.

"I've shot so many deer in my life," he said. "It's not fun anymore."

But not all farmers and hunters are willing to shoot antlerless deer, he acknowledged.

"You go down the road from my farm a few miles where they don't shoot any does and the deer are thicker than flies," Coddington said.

The state Department of Natural Resources is urging hunters to take the lead in controlling the size of the herd by harvesting more antlerless deer than they have in the past - two does or young antlerless deer on average for every buck with antlers in much of the state, DNR big game ecologist Keith Warnke said.

"Hunters really need to show their mettle now and take responsibility to harvest antlerless deer," Warnke said. "If we have a couple of years when we kill two antlerless to every buck in some of these units, then we can get our hands around this herd again."

Herd near record size

Warnke projects that the total white-tailed deer herd will stand between 1.5 million and 1.7 million this fall.

The state's record-high deer census of 1.8 million came in 2000.

There are 137 deer management units in Wisconsin, and herd density estimates at the end of last winter exceeded DNR population goals in all but 12 of them. Outside the chronic wasting disease zone, densities were more than 20% above goals in 75 units, and that was before this spring's fawns were born.

The 2-to-1 antlerless-to-buck goal applies to those 75 units, which have now been designated in need of herd control.

In 21 of those herd control units, the DNR has imposed earn-a-buck regulations, requiring hunters to shoot an antlerless deer before they can take a buck, said Brad Koele, assistant deer and bear ecologist.

An unlimited number of antlerless deer permits will be made available in the 75 units with the aim of thinning deer concentrations in each of them.

If that strategy does not work, additional units could be designated as earn-a-buck for next year.

Hunters were given another tool this year to help them trim the herd: a Dec. 7-10 antlerless-only deer hunt in all units of the state.

"We certainly agree with the approach to shoot antlerless deer," said Mark Toso, president of the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association, a 4-year-old group promoting herd management.

Toso said the antlerless hunting goals will be opposed by two groups: older hunters who were raised in "buck only" traditions, emphasizing the preservation of breeding stock to grow the herd; and hunters who doubt the DNR's ability to accurately estimate herd densities and do not believe the population is so large.

The DNR stands behind its numbers.

With so many deer roaming the state, excessive amounts of crops are being gobbled up by the animals, Warnke said.

Car-deer crashes high

For 2005, the DNR will pay more than $1.3 million in crop damage claims. Fewer than 1% of the state's farmers file claims, however, and the full extent of annual crop losses has been estimated between $7 million and $8 million each year.

Such an omnipresent herd also creates conflicts on roads and highways when large numbers of deer collide with vehicles.

In 2005, 12 people died in motor vehicle-deer collisions, up one from the previous year, according to the Wisconsin State Patrol. There were a total of 554 vehicle-deer crashes with injuries and an additional 16,989 non-injury collisions reported statewide in 2005.

And deer in high densities eliminate certain native wildflowers, shrubs and tree seedlings on forest floors.

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"Forests become less diverse and less productive," said Paul DeLong, administrator of the DNR's forestry division.

Hunting remains the most efficient way to thin the herd, said Tom Hauge, director of the DNR's wildlife management bureau in Madison.

"Hunters are providing an important conservation service in Wisconsin," Hauge said. "Without hunters, we'd be in a world of hurt."

"Historically, the deer gun season was looked at as a recreational event in Wisconsin. It was festive, like a statewide Packers game," he said. Students take a week off school and adults schedule vacations during the November gun hunt. Generations of families have participated in the same hunting camps.

"Hunters rarely identify themselves as managers of the herd," Hauge said.
Marquette County crowd

Outside the chronic wasting disease zone, the highest deer density is found in unit 67A, east of I-39 in Marquette County. Density is measured per square mile of deer range - woods, wetlands and shrub thickets of more than 10 acres.

At the end of last winter, the DNR estimated a density of 60 deer per square mile of deer range in 67A. The management goal is 25. The unit encompasses Coddington's 420-acre farm.

On Labor Day last year, Coddington himself shot five deer at his farm, on county Highway D southwest of Montello. The DNR lets him kill 15 deer a year on his farm under a special agricultural shooting permit. He distributes the so-called "ag tags" to relatives.

"Most hunters don't like shooting does because it's so easy," he said. "But each deer eats farm crops and, for me, that's money out of my pocket."

He has a front-row seat to view the destruction each year.

"Deer love soybeans," Coddington said. "They'll cut 'em right off like a lawn mower until the leaves get brown and then they'll turn to corn. They'll live in the cornfields until you pick it."