Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Alt text © Robert Queen

Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center director Richard Thiel reviews with a student how to map and follow bearings.
© Robert Queen

December 2010

A place for first hunts and new outdoor pastimes

Young hunters, new hunters and their mentors can hone their skills at Sandhill.

Richard P. Thiel and Britt Searles

"Waking at 3 a.m. on a cold November morning to sit in line for an hour; waiting for the gate to open; getting into the woods 45 minutes before opening day; and feeling very, very cold, would have sounded nuts to anyone but a hunter. I was at Sandhill for my first hunt with my Dad as my chaperone. We were sure to have a good time and hopefully get my first deer..."

Twelve-year-old Bridget Schumaker wrote these lines following her experience at Sandhill Wildlife Area. Since 1992, the Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center has sponsored a special youth deer hunt on the first full weekend in November for children aged 12 to 15 and a beginner hunt for adults 16 and older. In the intervening years, more than 2,500 students have attended a one-day workshop and earned the opportunity to pursue a wily whitetail on this special hunt on the 14-squaremile Sandhill Wildlife Area located about 20 miles west of Wisconsin Rapids. These students and their adult chaperones come from throughout Wisconsin and some from out-of-state to join this unique DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management education program.

Sandhill isn't just any old wildlife area. The site has served as a deer research facility for the Department of Natural Resources since 1963. The property was managed as Sandhill Game Farm, Inc. by pioneer wildlife biologist Wallace Grange and his wife, Hazel, at the height of the Great Depression. Over a seven-year period between 1930 and 1937, the Granges acquired nearly 9,000 acres of burned-over, played-out land, hand-built a high deer-proof fence around it, and began the daunting task of raising wildlife for export. State conservation agencies were just beginning such wildlife restoration programs. Deer live-trapped at Sandhill Game Farm, Inc. were shipped and released in far-flung places like Florida, Mississippi and Georgia to jump-start their faltering deer herds.

By the late 1950s, interest in stocking deer died away as state deer herds began to rebound. The Wisconsin Conservation Department's Game Management Division (the DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management's predecessor) became interested in acquiring Sandhill in response to overtures from the Granges who were seeking an owner-guardian for their beloved land who would promote the ideals of conservation through research and education. Several game managers and deer research biologists recognized this facility's value. They wanted to acquire this fenced-off property to test various management strategies in part to answer pressing questions on deer herd management. They reasoned that with some improvements, the deer-tight fence surrounding the property provided the barrier needed to prevent captive deer living within from mingling with wild deer outside the fence. This would make the task of counting Sandhill's contained deer herd much easier. The biologists were interested in answering such questions as: How do deer numbers respond to changes in forest habitat? What effect would different kinds of hunting seasons have on the age and sex ratios of the Sandhill herd? They envisioned studying the behavior of Wisconsin's deer hunters who used the site as well. Negotiations proceeded over a number of years and in 1962, Gov. Gaylord Nelson signed a purchase agreement.

During the past 40 years, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has conducted some incredible studies on Sandhill's whitetails. Led by renowned (now retired) wildlife biologist John Kubisiak, studies in the 1970s and 1980s focused on such diverse questions as whether deer hunters can exterminate a herd? Do muzzleloaders create excessive losses from hunters wounding deer that go unretrieved? At what densities do deer hunters begin to feel crowded and complain of seeing "too many" other deer hunters?

Another unique charge the Granges left to the state as a condition of sale was to promote opportunities for wildlife education. This aspect of Sandhill's charter didn't really get off the ground until the Outdoor Skills Center was created in the early 1990s. As its director, Thiel leads the charge in developing numerous programs to appeal to a broad cross-section of interests ranging from learning how to hunt and trap, to learning more about wildlife ecology, honing skills to better view wild animals, learning to camp and trying other forms of recreation where wildlife is a focus. It was only natural that a special youth hunt became a central part of our educational offerings.

Our concept of a youth hunt provides participants with a safe, educational and fun activity that includes both a workshop and a special onetime hunt. Our youth program targets 12- to 15-year-olds whether or not they have hunted in the past. Our first-time hunt program is open to anyone 16 years or older.

Our work starts each January, 10 months before the hunt, in meetings with the Sandhill Deer Management Committee composed of biologists and University of Wisconsin wildlife ecology professors. We review Sandhill's annual deer herd census to determine how many deer should be harvested and the number of hunter permits we will issue. We accept applications from the end of March through the end of May each year. Demand outstrips the number of permits available so we use randomized computer drawings to select participants in early June. Over the years we've been able to accommodate about 69 percent of the applicants, which translates to 123 to 195 hunters annually. Very consistently, about 25 percent of our young hunters are female.

Photo of youth with harvested deer © Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center Each harvested deer is registered, measured, aged and tissue samples are taken for health assessment.
© Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center

Each student-chaperone pair is assigned to attend a one-day workshop held in early August. We hold five or six such workshops over a two-week period to accommodate all hunting pairs. In workshops we spend a few hours orienting students and chaperones to the Sandhill facility, distributing maps and practicing compass skills. After some practice, those skills are put to the test. Given just a handful of instructions, the teams maneuver through an orienteering course. Their task is to reach various posts scattered about in the woods. We also bring in a conservation warden to talk with the groups and review special deer hunting rules and regulations on the property. Then a wildlife specialist leads a session on deer biology. Each student also gets to improve their marksmanship skills on the facility's rifle range. We supply firearms for range training and can loan out guns for the supervised hunts on our grounds. All-in-all it is a long, eventful day.

In all but four of the 19 years we've run these special youth and beginning adult deer hunts, participants have received an either-sex deer permit, allowing them to select a doe, fawn or buck. This gives each student the freedom to target whatever comes their way without worrying about accidentally making a mistake, as happens sometimes when antlerless permits are issued.

At their workshop, hunters learn that part of our process is doing a bit of research. Each evening before the students and chaperones leave the property following their hunt they are asked a series of questions. And if they have harvested a deer, each animal is weighed, sexed and aged. This information helps biologists assess the year-to-year changes in Sandhill's herd. Since 2002, we have also collected either brain tissue or other samples to test for chronic wasting disease. No deer at Sandhill have tested positive to date.

We're getting a bit ahead of our story. Long before daybreak on the morning of their hunt the cars are lined up at one of our four entry points. Sleepy-eyed kids are nudged awake by excited chaperones to gather up their permits at the check-in station so they can get into Sandhill and hopefully arrive at their stands before the deer do!

"When 7 a.m. rolled around it was still cold and quiet, but sunny. Feeling chilled, I said 'yes' to the hot chocolate Dad offered me. While pouring it, Dad kidded, 'The deer will come now.' How right he was. I saw movement and two deer were staring at us from the woods. I nudged Dad. The lead deer would not come closer. It just stomped its foot to warn the other deer behind it, before trotting away. I had seen my first deer while hunting."

So how have these 2,500 beginner hunters done? Over the course of 19 years they have harvested 951 deer; a success rate of 35 percent: not too shabby for beginner hunters! The percent of the harvest consisting of bucks (other than buck fawns) has ranged from16 to 85 percent annually, even though we stress in our workshops that any deer taken by these youthful hunters is a deer to be proud of!

"At 1:25 p.m. two does came running along the edge of the woods with a buck chasing them. The buck saw us, stopped and turned the other way. Well, there goes three more deer, or so I thought. Suddenly one of the does came walking back into the clearing and stopped broadside of us. I got her in my sights and started to shake like I was freezing cold. I said to myself, 'calm down.' I stopped shaking and squeezed the trigger. The deer took off, Dad's hand patted my arm, and I had shot my first deer."
"...I was so excited, I could not concentrate and find any blood. Very soon though, I was able to help. I thought of this part of the hunt as a puzzle. ...I spotted some blood on a sapling and pointed it out to Dad. He found another spot, and then we looked ahead and there lay my prize."
"I will never forget the fun I had that weekend with my Dad, and the thrill of our success. Engraved in my memory forever is November 4, 2001, 1:30, the time I shot my first deer at Sandhill."

Schumaker's words have been repeated nearly 2,500 times at Sandhill in the past 19 years. She and others like her have learned that hunting is about sharing quality time with people you enjoy being with in truly remarkable surroundings – Wisconsin's great outdoors.

Richard P. Thiel directs Outdoor Skills Center programs at Sandhill Wildlife Area. Britt Searles is an educator at the facility.

How deer react to the hunt

Give deer credit for figuring out that hunters pose a threat to their survival. Just because you don't see animals doesn't mean "there aren't enough deer out there" during hunting season. Whitetails are capable of learning, and those that survive can figure out how to avoid hunters.

We tested this out during our annual two-day youth deer hunts between 1999 and 2002. Trained UW-Stevens Point students radio-collared and monitored deer positions and activity throughout the day. Students assigned to two-hour shifts at each of two telemetry radio towers recorded a radio fix per deer per hour from 5 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. This allowed us to "see" where each deer was prior to and after legal hunting hours (6:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.) before, during and after their interactions with hunters.

Obtaining a fix was relatively simple: Students in the two towers talked by portable radio, coordinated reading times and rotated boom antennas in a 360o arc until the signals were loudest. They took compass bearings of each observation and later mapped their results to plot fixes on the same deer. The intersection of lines drawn on the map from each tower pinpointed where the deer was located.

To determine whether the animal was "active" or "inactive," students listened to sense if the signal varied in volume. Deer were considered active even if they were only moving their necks. If the signal volume remained constant, the deer was definitely inactive.

In both the 1999 and 2000 seasons we followed the signals and movements of one collared buck and five collared does. Some deer were monitored both years. Their activity levels by the second day of the hunt decreased by half and they tended to be more active at dawn and dusk by the second day of the hunt. They clearly reacted to the presence of hunters. In fact, collared deer that were harvested by hunters were animals that showed the highest daily activity rates.

As for locations, the radio fixes we plotted were quite revealing. By day two, adult deer – both bucks and does – hunkered down into a swampy thicket and sat out the remainder of the season. Some managed to move to their "secure space" on day one right during the thick of the hunt!

Doe number 26 provided an excellent example of this hunkering down behavior. Radio-collared in winter of 2000, we followed her reactions towards hunters for four years. Once when we pinpointed her location during a shift change, I slowly drove down a tractor trail that wound along the rim of the marsh looking intently for some sign of Doe 26.

A quick sudden flash – then nothing – alerted me to her presence. She had been tracking the sound of our truck. I stopped. It took another 30 seconds of intent peering through the thicket to make out the outline of two ears, a muzzle, two eyes and the body of a deer lying down. She was looking directly at us not 20 yards away! It took another two minutes to discern the outlines of her two fawns lying beside her, also facing us. We sat in the idling truck for perhaps five minutes and watched her through binoculars. She never blinked an eye nor wrinkled her nose knowing that any movement would give away her position. In each of the four deer seasons she retreated to this same 40-yard swath of tag alder thicket. In two of those years we know she had fawns and they were right by her side. This mother was good at teaching her offspring how to deal with hunters. When she was finally shot a few years after our telemetry study ended, I was stunned. The chaperone to that hunt described how he and his student were walking through that same thicket and chanced upon her. She did not jump from her bed until they were less than five yards away. Doe 26 clearly showed how whitetails can stay out of harm's way to survive another day.

I imagine in the old days this behavior evolved as a good strategy to survive predation. Deer will hunker down. They don't vacate their range as some hunters believe. They merely change their habits temporarily. Over millennia deer learned to alter their behavior in response to threats, select safe times of day to move for feed, retreat to areas within their home range that offer secure cover, and lay low until danger passes. Deer, we learned, are pretty smart after all! – Richard P. Thiel