Report: Wis. DNR should drop deer goals
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin wildlife officials should scrap local deer population goals, let landowners hold mini-hunts on their property and establish better connections with the public, Gov. Scott Walker's deer trustee wrote in a report released Tuesday.
Texas researcher James Kroll's 136-page study focuses largely on the Department of Natural Resources' shortcomings but takes hunters to task too, saying they expect the agency to maintain a herd so large the landscape can't support it. His plan offers the two sides a chance to compromise and save Wisconsin's hunting traditions from disappearing, he said.
"This is a reset button," Kroll said of his recommendations. "If we're going to continue to have the hunting heritage in Wisconsin, we're going to have to do this."
DNR Lands Division Administrator Kurt Thiede issued a statement saying agency officials haven't reviewed the report yet.
"We are not afraid to face recommendations and critiques that are contained in the report and adjust accordingly," Thiede said.
Deer hunters have been feuding with the DNR over the last decade or so, contending the agency's herd control tactics have become so ham-handed and rigid they're leading to anemic hunts.
Walker, a Republican, tapped into the rancor on the campaign trail two years ago, promising to respond to hunters' complaints. The governor's administration hired Kroll in October for $125,000 to undertake an extensive review of the DNR's policies. Kroll and two other researchers have spent the last nine months studying DNR documents and data and meeting with DNR employees, stakeholder groups, Wisconsin's American Indian tribes and the general public.
Kroll issued preliminary findings in March that were highly critical of the DNR. He picks up where he left off in his final report, picking apart everything from the DNR's population estimates to a lack of easily accessible, computerized maps.
The report says the department's population estimates aren't precise enough to serve as the basis for population goals in individual management zones. Zone goals are crucial to hunters because the numbers determine what herd control strategies, such as antlerless hunts, the DNR might impose on that area.
The agency should do away with zone population estimates and goals, saying most hunters have little faith in them, the numbers are indefensible statistically and the constant argument over the figures erodes the DNR's credibility. The DNR instead should adopt simple goal statements such as increase, stabilize or decrease population density and establish criteria to measure success based on local trends, such as crop damage, forest degradation or car-deer crashes.
The report recommends the DNR start a program that allows landowners and hunting clubs to run hunts on their property after consulting with DNR biologists. At least 20 states already allow such hunts, according to the report.
The hunts would help manage the local herd, build trust between hunters, landowners and the state and provide the DNR with valuable scientific data from the dead deer. The program could yield up to 25,000 deer and cost about $100,000 annually. The money would come from enrollment fees and antlerless permit fees.
Wisconsin Democrats have accused Kroll of favoring private hunting clubs over public lands, pointing to remarks he made to "Texas Monthly" magazine in 2002 calling people who want more public land "cocktail conservationists who are really pining for socialism." They feared Kroll might recommend privatizing public lands.
Kroll dismissed that criticism as politically motivated — it came during the height of Democrats' attempt to recall Walker this past spring — and he insisted his mini-hunt idea could apply across swaths of public land too.
The study also recommends the DNR step up its attempts to connect with the public and stakeholders. Agency biologists should spend more time working with forestry and agricultural specialists and develop local management teams that would include tribal representatives, the agency should involve volunteers in projects as much as possible and involve members of the Conservation Congress, a group of influential sportsmen who advise the DNR, in local deer management decisions.
"You guys almost overnight can go from heels to heroes just by working with people," Kroll said he told agency officials.
Still, Kroll praised DNR employees as competent professionals trying to do the right thing for Wisconsin wildlife. He ended the report by admonishing hunters, saying they want to see more deer than the land can sustain. They want government officials to maintain a herd so large the state's forests would suffer and more motorists will crash into the deer.
"Ironically, by attempting to raise more deer than the land can sustain, they wind up with fewer deer," the report said.
Kroll warned that if the DNR and hunters can't agree on his recommendations the state's rich hunting tradition could vanish. Legislators will step in and start mandating heavy-handed changes, he said. Hunter numbers will decline and the DNR will have to rely on predators to control the herd, he said.
"Everybody's sick and tired of this and they're ready to do something," Kroll said. "The ball's in your court, pure and simple."