After last week's Iron County Recreation Enthusiasts (ICORE) meeting in Mercer, members and the public were invited to stay to hear presentations from Keith McCaffrey and Adrian Wydeven regarding wolf and deer population dynamics.
McCaffrey spoke about deer populations and how they have changed over time. While I did not expect anything new and shocking to come of it, I think the information was well worthwhile for those in attendance.
McCaffrey spoke about deer habitat and carrying capacity of different types of habitat in the deer range. Again, while it was not a shock that stands of mature maple do not make the best habitat for deer, I did find it interesting when he said a photographic light meter, held at waist height on a human, could give a good idea of the potential carrying capacity of a fores. It is the amount of incident light, he said, from waist high to the ground that will determine how much forage is being produced for deer. It makes sense, but it was not something I had thought of before.
Long-term trends do not look good, he said, noting that many of the species such as aspen, which make good deer habitat, are being replaced by longer lived species such as maples. Obviously, deer need browse within their reach to eat and be healthy.
Habitat quality and weather are the two big determiners of deer populations and carrying capacity, he said. He showed a graphic depicting severe winters in the last 60 years. The last 30 years were much less detrimental to deer populations than the previous 30, with 22 of the last 30 winters being in the mild category. That offset the fact that habitat quality was declining. He listed supplementation of energy (feeding of deer) as another factor that has had a big affect on deer populations. If deer are being supplementally fed, it would stand to reason the carrying capacity of any habitat would be higher. With the amount of feed and bait being put into the woods and onto the landscape, it is like having a great acorn from every year not only every year, but everywhere, he explained Acorn crops can have an affect on population dynamics as well, but baiting and feeding can cause a population to become inflated over that which the habitat could normally support.
That makes sense. He also said he felt the state should have enacted a statewide baiting and feeding ban as soon as CWD was found in the state. I tend to agree with that.
He went on to discuss the severe winters we have had of late. Those winters have taken a toll on the deer population, as I thought most people were aware. In severe winters, deer can starve to death. Fawns will either not be born or be too weak and mortality can be a problem.
From McCaffrey's standpoint, however, not everyone takes that into account. Not all hunters will admit deer starve during harsh winters, he said.
"Any time there is a downward change in the population, they get mad," he said. "Usually they get mad at the DNR. They say they shot too many deer. Or else they get mad at predators, because those are the two easy answers."
Of course, during severe winters, predators have to eat, too, and wolves, coyotes and bears all fit into that category. Bears were blamed for a great deal of fawn mortality when the DNR revamped its bear population model and found its population estimates had been low, he noted. Once they estimated 20,000 or so bears, many felt it must be the bears who were killing all the fawns, and that was the reason the deer population was headed downward.
Wolves have been blamed for this as well. Depending on you listen to, these predators are or are not a factor in deer populations. Of course, if you have more predators, more animals on the landscape need to eat. That is a no-brainer to me. But it seems unlikely that we will ever get a real estimate of mortality by predators. I think the debate is too heated for solid facts to really take hold in the thinking patterns of too many people. It is all about what one person experiences, of course. If a hunter or even a wildlife viewer, is in an area where they do not see many predators or tracks or other evidence, they will probably tell you predators do not have an effect. If a person is out on land they have hunted for years and they see wolf tracks and never get a chance to raise their gun to a deer, of course it is the predators' fault - whether that is the case or not.
It should be obvious, too, that this should level itself off at some point. If there is not enough food (deer, etc.) to support more predators, there will not be more predators. The issue, however, is the numbers at which the populations would level off would not be where hunters and others think they should be. Again, perception muddies the water. I would love to go out and see a lot of big deer when I go hunting, just as anyone else would. But, if our habitat does not have the ability to support what I think in my head should be out there, it is just not going to happen.
One thing McCaffrey mentioned that I did agree with is how we mange deer today. It seems we do not use much science. We use public and hunter opinion. The County Deer Advisory Committees, he noted, are not made up of experts in deer management. While they are all well-meaning people and truly believe they are doing the best thing for deer populations, they are managing deer based on what they hear from the public.
McCaffrey also mentioned they are volunteers and are not paid to take abuse. Having sat through many CDAC meetings, I can say they do put up with a bit more than most volunteers would, but it can cause them to back down and follow hunter perception. For the reasons I have mentioned above, I, too, would have to say maybe this is not the best tactic. But, at the same time, no matter what the DNR does in regard to deer, there will still be large numbers of hunters who will say deer are not being managed correctly. Opinions are like - well, we have all heard that expression - everyone has one. But that does not make opinions the most scientific yardstick by which to measure success.
The second half of the presentation was given by wolf expert Adrian Wydeven. I have heard him speak before and have read some of his work. His presentation was a thorough look at wolves and how they fit into the landscape.
One thing he said that seemed to come as a surprise to many in attendance was the illegal killing of wolves has doubled during times when states have had no control over managing wolf populations. I had read this in several places before and looked through at least two studies that showed this. While it sounds strange, it makes sense.
People who are frustrated by wolf interactions - with livestock, for instance - will eventually take things into their own hands. The "triple S" mentality takes over: shoot, shovel, shut up. When states are allowed to manage wolf populations on their own, public opinion changes a bit. People feel as though there is something that can be done, and that is being done, by having a hunt.
Wydeven listed several myths about wolves. One of those is that the DNR introduced wolves to Wisconsin. This is not true. Wolves moved into Wisconsin from Minnesota on their own. He also said, while people view wolves as a danger to themselves, wolves tend to stay away from humans. There have been only two cases in the last 150 years where a person was attacked by a wolf. In general, they are fearful of people.
Wydeven listed predators as not having the biggest impact on deer populations. But, again, public perception is somewhat different. He agreed wolves do kill deer. Of course they do. But, he said, their impact on anything but a localized basis is fairly limited.
He said the impact of wolves on livestock, in the overall scheme of things, is small. I think that provides little solace to the farmer or rancher who is having problems, however. Looking at the entire industry of livestock, I am sure the impact is small, but for the person that is having an issue where wolves are attacking their animals or harassing their animals and stressing them out, I would imagine those statistics do not mean much.
Wolves do have some potential benefits for the ecosystem, he said. In wolf pack areas there are a greater variety of wildflowers, healthier deciduous trees and shrubs with less browsing on those trees and shrubs and a greater diversity of spring ephemerals. Deer, he said, would spend more time on the outer edges of a wolf pack area rather than the internal area where an established pack has been. I would suppose that would make sense as well. In the big scheme of things, this would make a difference. But, again, it would provide little solace to a hunter who is unable to put meat in his freezer and walks around in the woods seeing nothing but predator tracks.
Wydeven reminded those in attendance that wolf populations we hear are minimum numbers. While the wolf populations are at just under 1,000 in the winter, when the counts are taken, this is a minimum number. With over 200 packs of wolves and females having an average of five pups per litter that may add almost another 1,000. Approximately 70 percent of pups will not live through their first year, however, bringing populations back down. However, most of the time, there are more wolves on the landscape than the numbers that we hear.
During times where wolves had no management authority, incidents of farms reporting problems with wolves dropped drastically, he said. Incidents of attacks on cattle showed the same trend.
The wolf population, while reduced, was not reduced by nearly as much as the decline in incidents. It has been coming up again in recent years, he said, since the state has lost management authority. Once the state has that authority to manage wolf populations, Wydeven said, fewer and fewer wolves would need to be taken to keep wolf-animal interactions and other interactions down to a manageable level.
Both of the discussions were interesting, and the deer wolf debate will go on and on, I am sure. I think the more informed people are, the better decisions they can make on any topic, and I believe this one to be the same.
Public perception, however, will always have a great deal to do with the feelings involved, at least in my lifetime, I am sure. And the debate over control of wolf populations will rage on for some time, I would guess. Will control be turned back over to the state? It will be interesting to see. If and when that happens, watching the numbers Wydeven spoke about will also be interesting.
Regardless of whether wolves are listed or delisted, there are definitely heated opinions on both sides of the issue and I do not believe they will go away any time soon.
Beckie Gaskill may be reached via email at email@example.com.
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