Deer kill, license sales drop to 30-year low

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The 2016 deer kill was down despite a statewide herd that was likely larger this year.

Hunters registered 196,785 deer during the 2016 Wisconsin gun deer season, the lowest total in 34 years, according to preliminary data released Tuesday by the Department of Natural Resources.

Notably, hunter participation also was down. The agency sold 598,867 gun licenses, a 40-year low and the first time the number has dipped below 600,000 since 1976.

Five non-fatal shooting incidents were reported during the season, which ran Nov. 19 to 27.

The 2016 deer kill was down despite a statewide herd that was likely larger this year, according to DNR preseason forecasts.

Weather on opening day, which typically accounts for the largest single-day kill, featured high winds and generally poor hunting conditions.

The balance of the season was mild and most of the state lacked snow cover.

The decline in gun deer license sales is seen by most as a continuation of decades-long demographic shifts as well as a recent change in the state's crossbow hunting law.

Wisconsin gun deer license sales peaked at 699,275 in 1990 and have followed a general decline as fewer state residents participate in hunting and the aging ranks of existing hunters are buffeted by attrition.

Some deer hunters, too, may be opting to buy a crossbow license instead of a gun license. Since 2014, Wisconsin has offered a crossbow deer season for all hunters that is many times longer than the gun season and includes the peak of the rut, or deer mating season. Sales of bow and crossbow licenses are a combined 286,578 in 2016, a slight increase from last year and highest on record.

The 2016 Wisconsin gun deer harvest included 97,892 bucks (up 6% from 2015) and 98,893 antlerless deer (down 6%), according to DNR data. The 2016 statewide figures represent about a 1% drop from 2015.

Of the state’s management regions, only the northern forest showed a harvest increase this year.

Regionally, the deer kill was 111,484 (down 4% from 2015) in the central farmland, 44,891 (down 7%) in the southern farmland, 32,400 (up 21%) in the northern forest and 8,010 (down 2%) in the central forest.

Of note, hunters registered 30% more bucks this year in the northern forest, an indication the deer herd is recovering after two consecutive mild winters and several years of “buck only” rules in many counties.

Buck harvest is used as a leading indicator by the DNR as it evaluates deer population trends.

"The harvest is never uniform just as deer densities aren't uniform, but overall it is encouraging to see the increase in the northern counties, and statewide harvest levels similar to last year,” DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said in a statement.

Marathon County had the most deer registered (7,663), with Waupaca (7,328) and Shawano (6,701) rounding out the top three counties.

For the nine-day season, the DNR reported two non-fatal shooting incidents in Taylor County and one each in Oconto, Ozaukee and Waukesha counties.

Two were self-inflicted and two involved hunters in the same party. In the fifth, the victim and shooter were not in the same party, said Todd Schaller, DNR chief warden.

The shooting incident rate for the 2016 season was 0.83 per 100,000 participants, Schaller said. Five of the last 10 Wisconsin gun deer seasons have been fatality-free.

The muzzleloader hunt runs through Dec. 7, a statewide antlerless deer hunt is scheduled Dec. 8 to 11 and the bow deer seasons run through Jan. 8 in most of the state.