DNR officials happy with opening day of deer hunt
Hunters and state wildlife officials were excited about the way the state's 161st nine-day gun deer season was unfolding on opening day.
Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp and other officials held a press briefing Saturday afternoon (opening day) as another part of a new push to keep state residents and the media involved in restoring the tradition to Wisconsin's deer hunting season.
"This is something different we're doing and we're excited about the added outreach," Stepp said during the press teleconference.
This year's opening day was her second as secretary and she said she couldn't wait to get out in the woods in Buffalo County where she was hunting on opening day. "It has been a really fun experience."
Though she didn't have any luck bagging a deer early in the day, Stepp said she was thrilled by the experience she shared as a 13-year-old boy came back to her deer camp having gotten his first deer.
"I was a little envious of him," she said with a laugh, adding that it was really nice to see the excitement and pride in that kid's eyes.
In addition to chatting with reporters on opening day, DNR officials have been using social media - blogging, sharing stories on Facebook, and tweeting - as a way to involve more people in the hunt and restoring the tradition to the hunt, Stepp said.
If people feel a connection to the outdoors and to the hunt, it will make them partners in conservation, she added.
Stepp said she was happy to see that more than 30 percent of first-time hunters this year were female, which she sees as a good sign. "When we get women involved they will bring their families along."
Offering lower-cost licenses to first-time hunters was one of the ways the agency hoped to bring more hunters to the gun-deer season, Stepp said.
A total of 614,435 licenses were sold, with was up two percent (10,000 licenses) over last year. Hunters would still be able to purchase licenses throughout the season, said Diane Brookbank, the DNR's Customer Service and Licensing Bureau director.
Staffers at the service counter in Oshkosh, she said, were touched by the story they witnessed of an 84-year-old man who wanted to purchase a first-time hunter license for $5, but didn't qualify. He was told he would have to buy a regular $25-dollar license.
He told them he couldn't afford that.
The young hunter behind him in line overhead the story and put a $20-dollar bill down on the counter to help the guy out, causing DNR counter staff to tear up.
"It was something they will never forget," Brookbank said.
The agency has sold 25,703 first-time hunter licenses this year and 32 percent of those were sold to women, she said. Thirty-five percent of the first-time licenses were sold to hunters 17 years of age and under.
The DNR's call center had already fielded 4,200 calls as of opening day, with the top question being whether or not hunters could still buy licenses. Many hunters also called for clarification about hunting regulations.
The number for the DNR call center is 888-936-7463.
Kevin Wallenfang, the DNR's big game ecologist, said the opening day of the gun deer season is a very big one for the agency's wildlife staff. During the season his staff will have boots on the ground to evaluate 20,000 registered deer for age, health and other factors.
"It's a great educational opportunity. Hunters have a lot of questions," he said.
From what he has already heard from hunters, they are very happy with what they are seeing in the field, Wallenfang said.
The weather was okay for opening morning of the season, but fog in some places hampered hunters' ability to see deer. In the north it was perhaps a little windier than hunters would have liked and they were missing the snow cover they generally would like to see, he added.
Warmth during the middle of the day may have dampened the rutting activity but officials are seeing more deer registered than last year.
Wallenfang said deer being registered have good antler growth. "In our northern stations we are seeing very few spike bucks - most have developed forked antlers and the deer are bigger than last year."
He said the mild winter last year and the early green-up in the spring, along with a heavy acorn crop in the North were contributors to the big size of the bucks that have been shot on opening day. Yearling bucks were as big as three-year-olds, he said.
Also a contributor to that trend, he added, was the fact that hunters have been passing up smaller bucks in recent years, which means that they will have more time to grow larger - no secret.
"Wisconsin is well-known as a big deer state. I've seen some tremendous bucks that were taken this morning."
Last year there were 350,000 deer harvested through the nine-day hunt. "I hate to make any kind of prediction because we don't know what the rest of the week is going to be like, but with the overall number of deer up I'd say we will probably have as good a season as last year."
DEER CZAR REPORT
Stepp said that in the wake of the "deer czar" report last year, her agency has taken some steps to connect and listen more to hunters in Wisconsin.
"We're doing that through a whole variety of outreach activities and I think there's a feeling now that the DNR is part of the tradition instead of just being a regulator."
Some of the things contained in the Kroll report to Gov. Walker will require statutory or rule changes, she added, and can't be addressed at the agency level.
But she thinks the changes DNR has made are bringing younger people into the hunt and people are having fun.
Stepp said she is hearing that the lowered license price for new hunters has had an impact, along with the social media involvement. A return to a traditional season is another step the agency has taken to bring hunters back. "I would think that has a great deal to do with it."
The agency reported one gunshot injury on opening day. It happened in Manitowoc County where two parties were involved.
One hunter shot at a running deer and hit another hunter with shotgun spray who was behind the deer, causing injury to the hand. That hunter was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Though wardens were still investigating, it had appeared to be accidental.
There were also two reports of hunters falling from tree stands.
Testing for chronic wasting disease (CWD) continues in the first area where the disease was found several years ago - Iowa, Richland, Sauk and Dane counties - and has been added in the North where one positive deer was found last year.