The buck harvest numbers released by the Department of Natural Resources after the nine-day gun deer season last year showed the buck kill was up by 30 percent in the Northern Forest Region. Still, most hunters said their hunting experience in the Northwoods was poor to extremely poor.
In the months after the numbers were released, The Lakeland Times received calls and emails from hunters saying they suspected the DNR numbers were wrong and rumors swirled about hunters harvesting does registered as bucks just to have meat in the freezer or who registered a deer they did not kill. Some said they felt these fabrications and lies were done in an attempt to inflate the herd numbers artificially in hopes the "buck only" counties of the north would change hunt structures in following years, allowing the harvest of does as well.
In response to these rumors and in the wake of an overall disbelief in the DNR numbers, The Times made an open records request for the names of hunters in Oneida and Vilas counties who registered a deer last deer season. Upon receiving those names, 200 surveys were sent out. Of those, 109 were returned. Surveys were also handed out at various locations throughout the Northwoods, with 119 of those returned.
The respondents in the survey handed out were not necessarily hunters who harvested a deer in 2016. There were also 292 respondents to the online version of the survey. While there were some differences in what online respondents reported, the surveys mailed to the names from the DNR and surveys handed out around the area were fairly close in their responses.
The first two questions on the survey asked whether the respondent harvested a deer in the 2016 and 2015 season. Of those on the DNR list, 101 hunters said they harvested a deer in 2016. Eight hunters said they did not, although they did register a deer with the DNR in 2016. It was unclear why respondents would answer "no" to that question, but group hunting may have had something to do with those responses. Of those same hunters, only 76 harvested a deer in 2015. This survey, as well as the surveys handed out in various locations (with 31 respondents harvesting a deer in 2016 versus 23 in 2015) points to an uptick by approximately 25 percent in those 228 surveys. From this sampling it was concluded that the DNR numbers are likely accurate.
In these two survey categories, 70 hunters reported seeing more deer than the previous year. However, 153 stated they saw fewer deer. Five hunters said they saw about the same amount or declined to answer the question. Of the 228 hunters who responded, 140 of them saw predators during the nine-day gun deer season.
The top two predators hunters saw in the woods, or saw tracks from, were wolves and coyotes. Coyotes were the predator most seen with 246 reports.
Interestingly, a large majority of respondents disagreed with the DNR numbers stating the buck harvest in the Northern Zone was up by 30 percent in 2016 over 2015. In all, 190 respondents disagreed.
While harvest numbers were up, many hunters were decidedly dissatisfied with their hunting experience.
The number of hunters who rated their hunting experience as "poor" or "very poor" was 145. Only 26 hunters felt their hunting experience was "good" or "very good." Many hunters who were able to harvest a deer reported their hunting experience as poor. This may lead one to believe the quality of deer is still down in the Northern Forest Zone, but that cannot be discerned from this particular survey.
What is known is there are many things hunters feel impact the deer herd. The biggest of those things, in their experience, is predators. The vast majority, 195 hunters, thought wolves had at least some adverse effect on the deer herd numbers. One-hundred-and-twenty-one hunters said bears were detrimental to deer populations in the area. Over-harvest came in at 111 responses. Several hunters made comments concerning harvest of does by youth, the disabled and first-time hunters they felt had an adverse effect on deer numbers. Several hunters also thought a point-restriction on bucks would help improve the hunting experience in the Northern Forest Zone.
When asked about the current season structure, all but two respondents said they felt there were ample opportunities to harvest a deer with the current season structure. All other respondents felt the opportunities were either ample or overkill. So, while the opportunities were there as far as length of season and type of weapon, there was still limited satisfaction regarding the season.
Overall, while the survey did hint that the DNR-reported numbers were correct, there was definite agreement the hunting experience as a whole could be better. With Oneida and Vilas counties both taking a different approach in their recommendations regarding the 2017 deer hunt, many will watch with interest to see which approach, if either, will improve the hunting experience. Watch for further survey evaluation as well as comments from hunters in future editions of The Lakeland Times and River News.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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