Nearly 50 people from throughout Wisconsin gathered at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point March 9 for the first of seven meetings to develop plans for enhancing deer management in the state.
"This process is important to us," said Scott Gunderson, Department of Natural Resources executive assistant, as he welcomed meeting participants. "We're bringing hunters, woodland owners, farmers and others into the mix as we start this journey to implement the recommendations in the Deer Trustees' Report."
The report contained 62 recommendations made by Dr. James Kroll, along with Drs. Gary Alt and David Guynn, who were commissioned by Gov. Scott Walker as the state's deer trustees to perform an objective evaluation of deer management practices.
Reviewing some of the report's key provisions was Tom Hauge, the DNR's Director of Wildlife Management and a 35-year veteran with the department, who's also an avid gun and bow hunter.
He noted the Deer Trustees' Report focused on three main areas: deer population management, providing sufficient suitable habitat and the human dimension - people management.
"After holding meetings throughout the state and reviewing hundreds of documents, they (the trustees) came away with a feeling that we needed to spend more time working on people management and habitat management," Hauge related.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
One of the core themes in the report was the erosion of public confidence in Wisconsin's deer management program.
"Among the factors they cited was an over-reliance on SAK (Sex, Age, Kill) as the driving decision-maker for deer herd management, particularly SAK population estimates at the deer management unit (DMU) level," Hauge explained. "They recommended that if we're going to use population estimates we should be looking at a larger geographical area."
Another area of concern in the report was the current chronic wasting disease (CWD) management program. "This has become a source of frustration for many people," he remarked.
"They also felt we needed to work more closely with landowners, and this is where Dr. David Guynn made a significant contribution to the effort. A number of years ago he helped get Deer Management Assistance Programs (DMAPs) started in several southeastern states, working with landowners who had an interest in improving the management of their deer herds and improving deer habitat on their lands.
"By the time they came to review our Wisconsin deer management program, DMAP in some shape or form was being used in over 20 states, and they felt it had a lot of potential benefit for out state," Hauge said.
Better monitoring of deer habitat and herd health were other areas of concern identified in the report. "We have less-than-desired levels of data on browsing," Hauge acknowledged. "We know browsing occurs and is a concern of foresters and landowners, but trying to assemble data that will allow us to track that over time was something that was not readily available, and something we needed to improve."
The trustees also recommended making significant improvements to land cover data, most notably the land satellite layer of data, which is 1992 vintage data. They also suggested gathering more information on the condition of animals, such as weight, which would indicate the deer's response to the condition of their habitat.
The report suggested Wisconsin had an opportunity to push the re-set button for the DNR on its relationship with the public. "This is the opening round of that re-set dialog," Hauge remarked, "and we're eager to move forward."
Highlighting some of the actions that have been taken since the Trustees' Report was issued last summer, Hauge pointed out that DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp, Gunderson and Land Division Administrator Kurt Thiede set up a stakeholder forum to examine the many facets of deer management and provide initial reactions to the report and discuss ways to move ahead with the implementation process.
"These forums included most of the major conservation groups, good representation from the forest landowner community, representatives from county forests, Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association, along with representation from Wisconsin agriculture interests, university researchers, wildlife health experts and the state's Indian tribes," he said.
According to Hauge, these groups supported implementation of the recommendations. "But they understood there were a lot of details that needed to be worked out," he said. "While the report charts a pathway forward, it doesn't necessarily tell us when to turn left or right, and that's what you folks are going try and help us do over the next few months."
NUTS AND BOLTS
In the wake of stakeholder forum, the DNR has looked at some of the practical details of applying the recommendations, like more passive CWD management and developing metrics on habitat management.
"We know it's going to take resources to accomplish these goals," Hauge affirmed. "Land satellite photo coverage is not cheap data to acquire. If we're going to be changing regulations or seasons, we may also need new statutory authority."
Gov. Walker's proposed new two-year budget has provided help in moving forward with several recommendations in the report. "There is funding to help us acquire the land satellite data, and we recently have been given approval to hire a DMAP coordinator to help develop and manage that program," Hauge reported. "We're in the construction phase trying to figure out what DMAP should be in Wisconsin, we'd like to have that person on board as soon as we can."
Hauge views the large number of landowners who are enrolled in the state's Managed Forest Law program as a big advantage in developing a better deer management program.
"We have thousands of these landowners who already have forest management plans. Most of the 20 states who have DMAP programs don't have these plans in place," he said. "The challenge for Wisconsin is to take the best of those 20 state DMAP programs and marry that with something that's unique to Wisconsin and harness the best of both programs."
IMPLEMENTATION BY 2014
While it may seem unduly optimistic to some, Hauge said that DNR is seriously looking at implementing most of the changes contained in the Deer Trustees' Report for the 2014 deer season.
"We hope to get the necessary legislative authority and funding by the middle of summer. From the work you're doing will come specific recommendations that will perhaps take the form of rule changes," he said. "We're going to need until the end of summer to complete the public participation process and do the rule making in the fall. We want to have the deer season framework set so that going into spring of next year people know what the game plan is for the 2014 season."
In summing up DNR's position on implementing the Deer Trustees' Report, Huge said, "Our approach is that we are taking our current deer management system to a new level, and we are committed to working with our partners - and that's everybody in this room - to make it better.
"Wisconsin is blessed with a world-class deer herd and abundant hunting opportunities. We'll work hard to preserve these aspects while addressing the management system areas in which we want to perform better," he said. "As we move forward, we'll reach out to stakeholders throughout the process. We'll use our dedicated website and all the social media tools available to allow people to participate.
"We want to keep the process moving and not let it get stalled out or have a report that sits on a shelf and goes nowhere. We have a program that's built on science and we want to keep science as a fundamental foundation of our deer management program going forward."