At Tuesday’s meeting of the Douglas County Deer Advisory Council, the chief order of business — setting antlerless quota recommendations for the 2015 hunt — was decided in less than 10 minutes.
The discussion about the county’s gray wolf population lasted more than an hour
"I know we’re dealing with some very controversial items," said Al Horvath, council chair, "but allow everybody to talk . . . and get a chance to go over what’s important to them."
Attendance at Tuesday’s meeting was higher than in the past, with about 20 people on hand.
Audience members remained civil but criticized the Department of Natural Resources for underestimating the impact of gray wolves and for allowing the predators to increase unchecked.
In Gordon and Wascott, they said, deer camps are dissolving and hunters are giving up because wolves have driven deer numbers to record lows.
Horvath sympathized with audience concerns and suggested including a clause about predator control in the council’s official deer quota recommendation.
"I think there’s room on the landscape for wolves, and always should be and always will be; but I think they should be managed by the state," Horvath said.
Some members of the audience were less tempered in their remarks — calling for an aggressive reduction in the wolf population — but the point was ultimately moot.
A recent court decision returned the gray wolf to the Federal Endangered Species List. The ruling, made Dec. 19, prohibits all trapping or hunting of the animal in Wisconsin and puts the state’s annual wolf hunt on hold.
In spite of the ruling, the Douglas County Deer Advisory Council voted to move ahead with its statement of concern.
As part of its recommendation, the group included an addendum requesting proper management of the wolf population and "downward pressure" on the bear population.
"So our basic intent is to show that we can’t meet this deer objective without managing the predator population," said council member Doug Stevens.
Mark Schroeder, who represents forestry stakeholders on the council, recommended a general statement about predator reduction and cautioned members against "falling in love with a number." He used the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf population target of 350 animals as an example.
When the group arrived at that number, it was believed to be the reasonable carrying capacity for wolves in Wisconsin.
"That’s clearly not true," Schroeder said. "There’s significantly more wolves than that . . . so the carrying capacity that was used in that study obviously wasn’t right."
He also noted the difference between a biological carrying capacity and societal carrying capacity.
"We certainly went blowing right by 350 for the biological carrying capacity, and depending on who you’re talking with, we’re either well past or moderately past what the social carrying capacity is," he said.
"I think you had the right idea earlier when you said predators are part of the equation, but they should be managed like all the other animals on the landscape. Trying to demonize a wolf or make it an angel, I don’t think either one of those spectrums is proper. They’re an animal."
Along with its predator statement, the Douglas County council made its preliminary 2015 deer season recommendations. The members voted 4-0 to set the antlerless quota at zero for the Douglas County zone and at 200 for the Superior Metro Subunit.
An official recommendation will be sent to the DNR Friday, and a public comment period will run April 1-15. On April 21, the group will meet again to review feedback and make a final quota recommendation or the 2015 deer season. That meeting will be held 6-8 p.m. at the Government Center, 1316 North 14th St.
The Wisconsin Natural Resource Board has the final say on quotas and is expected to take up the matter at its May 27 meeting.
At Tuesday’s meeting, DNR wildlife biologist Greg Kessler shared the latest deer population data for Douglas County.
The deer herd is still recovering from last year’s harsh winter, he said, but the comparatively mild winter this year is good news for Wisconsin’s deer population.
"This is one heck of a break for our deer," Kessler said. "We should see a fairly decent increase in the buck crop this year."
Kessler predicted a 10 to 15 percent increase in the buck harvest from the two-decade low of 1,863 set last season. But he cautioned hunters not to expect trophy bucks. Most antlered deer will be between one and three years old.
Hunters also shouldn’t expect a quick return to the record harvests seen a decade ago.
The buck harvest was down 14 percent in Douglas County for the 2014 season, and the antlerless harvest was down 83 percent.
Kessler said numbers should rebound slightly for 2015, but significant improvement will likely take years.
Facts and figures
* In Douglas County, hunters using crossbows accounted for 50 percent of the total archery harvest. Statewide, the average was about 20 percent.
"Our archers took to crossbows like fish to water," Kessler said. "I don’t know why that was."
* Since 2009, there has been a shift in the percentage of deer taken on private land versus public land in Douglas County.
About 53 percent of the county’s land is public and 47 percent is private, yet 61 percent of the bucks and 64 percent of the antlerless deer harvested in Douglas County came from private land in 2014.
More deer have been harvested on private land than public in Douglas County for the past six seasons.
* In a public survey conducted in October, Douglas County registered the second highest number of responses in the state. Many used the forum to "vent" about predator concerns, said Horvath.Predators were the top issue for Douglas County, cited in 54 responses. Agreement with the Douglas County Deer Advisory Council’s plan was second with 37 responses. Support for a zero antlerless harvest was reflected in 26 responses, and complaints about DNR mismanagement were found in 22 responses.