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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

June 1998

Tagging a deer. In 1953 hunters began registering harvested deer to help wildlife biologists gather data on the state's deer herd. © Staber W. Reese

Keeping things wild in Wisconsin

Many tactics preserve Wisconsin's wild flavor.

Mary Kay Salwey


Tagging a deer. In 1953 hunters began registering harvested deer to help wildlife biologists gather data on the state's deer herd.

© Staber W. Reese
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Wildlife biologists and technicians provide a wide mix of outdoor experiences to meet a wide range of interests . Whether one chooses to watch warblers through binoculars, hunt deer with rifle or bow, photograph chipmunks at a park picnic table, sit in a waterfowl blind on a chilly October morning or simply revel in the sights and sounds of flocks of geese and sandhill cranes each spring, the public owes a lot to the efforts of wildlife conservationists.

History shows the difficulty of maintaining natural diversity. Wisconsin pioneers brought with them the hand-ax, the horse-drawn plow, and the market gun. In 1840, when only 31,000 European settlers lived in Wisconsin, development barely dented the wild bounty. But waves of immigration and new generations took their toll . Hunting and trapping went unregulated. Forests were cut over and burned. Native prairies were plowed under and wetlands drained, ditched or filled in.

Some animals like the wolf, cougar, bobcat, lynx, woodland caribou, sharp-tailed grouse and whooping crane simply couldn't tolerate the spreading human presence and retreated farther north, out of the path of European settlers' progress. Other animals faired better. The cottontail rabbit, cardinal, opossum, skunk, crow, beaver and white-tailed deer expanded their ranges as settlers opened up the landscape. Market hunting and habitat destruction drove the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet to extinction. Wild turkeys disappeared by 1881.

Unregulated trapping of marten, fisher and wolverine lead to their extirpation by the early 1900s. Poultry farmers and commercial fishermen slaughtered predatory hawks, owls and fish-eating mammals with a purpose. Market hunters decimated vast populations of geese, ducks, swans, cranes, shorebirds, and deer, as millions of breasts, thighs and briskets were shipped to Milwaukee, Chicago and points east.

Pioneers also added new animals to the landscape. Early sportsmen's clubs introduced non-native ring-necked pheasant, mute swan, Hungarian partridge, rock dove, German brown trout and carp to give settlers a sense of "homeland" as they hunted and fished in their new surroundings. Other animals like house finches and feral cats escaped from captivity, while the Norway rat, house mouse and zebra mussel came ashore as stowaways. Today, all of these species mingle with native animals, some as welcome additions, others as nuisance and threat to resident populations.

The inception of wildlife management, under Professor Aldo Leopold at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1933, stimulated research that would eventually reveal a host of tools and principles for maintaining and restoring wild populations. Another important Wisconsin innovation - a 1935 law mandating the "teaching of conservation of resources" in schools.

Wildlife recovery took many tacks. Among them:

  • purchasing large tracts – As early as the 1920s and 30s the Wisconsin Conservation Department began purchasing significant tracts of wetlands as wildlife areas where management would support more wildlife and improve recreation. These purchases included such large complexes as Crex Meadows, Horicon Marsh, and Sandhill Wildlife Area and continue today with the Stewardship Fund.
  • managing wetlands, forests and grasslands for diverse purpose – Creating impoundments by building a variety of earthen dams, dikes and water control structures, was an important first step in saving wetland wildlife. Since then, wildlife research has shown that many wildlife populations cannot survive on small parcels of land. Biologists now focus more attention on purchasing, leasing or otherwise cooperatively managing wetlands across an entire landscape.

Forest wildlife, especially white-tailed deer reached their valley and their peak under human management. Aggressive market hunting decimated deer populations. The first one-buck law was passed in 1915 and the first closed deer season occurred in 1925; the season would remain closed in odd-numbered years through 1936. Deer yards, important places where deer over-winter, were purchased and a statewide deer feeding program began in 1925 to support a weak herd. We now know such feeding programs are ineffective.

Slowly, the herd started to rebound. In 1953 hunters had to start registering harvested deer to provide information for wildlife biologists. The concept of a deer management unit meant the herd would be managed in naturally-occurring blocks of habitat rather than along human boundaries like roadways and township lines. Records of the ages and sex of harvested deer began in 1959 and two years later the important mathematical model called the S.A.K. (Sex-Age-Kill) model helped estimate the deer population in each unit. By 1962 over-winter population goals and antlerless deer quotas were set. Today, we continue to fine tune this modern method of deer management.

Managing our aging forests presents a continuing challenge. Young forests are filled with sun-loving trees like aspen, jack pine, scrub oak and white birch that provide food and shelter for a number of animals including deer, bear and grouse. As forests mature and shade-tolerant trees proliferate, game and nongame animal populations can decline. Yet, we need to maintain a mix of each forest type to maintain Wisconsin's natural biodiversity.

Grasslands also support a rich mix of species. Native prairies once covered two million acres. These fertile, treeless expanses were plowed into cropland and wildfires were controlled which used to keep the encroaching forest at bay. Today, less than 12,000 scattered acres of native prairie remain.

Pastures and hayfields which provided habitat for pheasants, ducks, bobolinks and meadowlarks steadily were converted to other uses. Farm fields got larger, small grain farming gave way to corn and soybean cash-cropping, pesticide use increased and quick-growing alfalfa strains allowed earlier cuts, during the bird-nesting season. Programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, the Glacial Habitat Restoration Project, and pheasant stamp funds are providing incentives to restore large tracts of grassland landscape. Here's how we're meeting needs of wildlife and people:

  • stocking – Pheasants are stocked on public hunting grounds and day-old chicks distributed to sports clubs to meet the interests of upland bird hunters.
  • recovery – Restoration programs have brought pine martens and fisher back to the Northwoods, wild turkeys to the fields and woodlands, wild pheasants to new grasslands, and elk to portions of the northern forest.
  • recognizing a broader constituency – Wildlife management program has made significant strides to serve the needs of citizens interested in wildlife, even if they don't choose to hunt and trap. Biologists realize broad interest in wildlife education, learning outdoor skills and watching wildlife. Outreach programs also target non-hunting audiences who are deeply concerned and interested in seeing wildlife and participating in public discussions of wildlife issues.
  • building partnerships – Public enthusiasm for wildlife has created many fruitful partnerships to improve wildlife habitat and restore wild populations. Nonprofit groups help restore waterfowl, upland birds and game populations; set reasonable fish and game laws; purchase property; improve forests; conserve soil and support outdoor recreation.
  • monitoring and surveying – By monitoring harvests, interviewing outdoor enthusiasts, conducting field surveys, and tracking animal health, wildlife health specialists provide a host of services to their clients. Survey work helps determine how wildlife respond to changing land uses and tally the impacts of hunting and trapping. Biologists use this information to set population goals, hunting seasons, harvest quotas and hunting permit levels, as well as determining when health advisories are warranted.

Wildlife biologists recognize that people have diverse interests in conserving rarer wildlife species, sustaining species that are in high demand, reducing populations that damage the environment and economic interests, and providing a fair opportunity for those who choose to hunt or merely explore the outdoors in search of wildlife.

Mary Kay Salwey heads DNR's wildlife education programs.