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Without question, the white-tailed deer draws more attention than any other animal on Wisconsin's long list of wild species. It may be your favorite to observe or hunt. It may be the bane of your landscaping or automobile. But when Wisconsin people talk about deer, every human emotion will eventually spill out.
That passion keeps hunters, wildlife watchers, farmers, foresters, insurance companies and many others concerned about deer management. And a deep feeling of public ownership has kept people involved in overseeing one of the most intensely managed, highest quality herds anywhere.
Not surprising, hunters have been the cornerstone of this movement, and they have never been shy in telling wildlife biologists how they would like to see the herd managed. The Natural Resources Board recognized there was a more diverse public that is affected by deer, and the Board set a course to give all interests equal footing in developing future guidelines for managing deer. The resulting planning process, called "Deer Management for 2000 and Beyond," will use public forums to sort issues and actions into a long-range plan managers will use to address the need to keep the herd, habitat and surrounding communities healthy.
The planning process is led by the Conservation Congress, citizen advisors to the Natural Resources Board who have a long history of mustering community support for conservation, representing the state's fishing and hunting public, and collecting opinions from small and large communities statewide. Given that history, the Congress seemed a good group to help identify and involve a wide range of people.
The Deer 2000 plan aims to collect opinions to set directions to maintain a healthy herd; simplify deer management goals so policies can be applied consistently statewide; and provide flexibility to adjust goals when necessary. Moreover, throughout the process, Deer 2000, will look for partners who will help develop and carry out recommendations.
Initially, a 23-member "design team" of Conservation Congress delegates from around the state are completing logistics for the statewide forums. In addition, wildlife biologists and law enforcement personnel from the Department of Natural Resources are playing an advisory role by attending design team meetings, providing expertise to answer technical questions about managing the deer herd, and addressing public concerns. Private consultants have been hired to run the meetings and guide the discussions.
What makes Deer 2000 different from other such efforts? More public involvement. Public hearings, focus groups and task forces have always been an important ingredient in successful deer management . However, in the past, the public would attend a meeting, tell others what they wanted, and go home. In contrast, Deer 2000 hopes to keep people involved in forming public works groups carrying out recommended projects.
Why involve more than just deer hunters? Because a wider group of people reap the benefits and pay the price of a larger herd. More than $20 million is raised annually selling deer licenses, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Deer hunting, deer watching, feeding, and many other deer-related activities contribute more than one billion dollars to our state's economy every year. Grocery stores, motels, restaurants, sporting goods stores, realtors, taxidermists and sausage-makers all have a stake in the herd. On the other hand, deer also cause a great deal of monetary loss. Car/deer collisions, loss of agricultural crops, tree damage at nurseries and landscaping losses cost millions of dollars each year as well. Further, those who develop land affect the herd and vice versa. So highway planners, road builders and subdivision developers are being asked to come to the table as well.
Other "costs" are harder to place a price tag on, such as the biological changes that occur when a large deer herd eats plants and changes habitat for other animals and plants.
By involving many interests, it is hoped the Deer 2000 plan can meet the needs of more users, reduce conflicts among users, and provide the recreational opportunities Wisconsin residents have come to expect.
The Conservation Congress has already spent a great deal of time meeting with a variety of groups to involve farmers, environmentalists, hunters, landowners, loggers, and others. Two conferences were held in July to collect comments on the planning process. This fall, more public meetings will collect comments and identify issues for a deer plan. In 1999, participants will put meat on the bones by discussing each idea and proposing solutions. Then, an educational phase begins in which ideas raised at meetings will be discussed at community meetings, and with local sports groups. Changes in state laws needed to carry out the proposals would also be drafted in spring of 2000. New management programs and projects could start by fall of 2000.
Here are some of the questions the Design Team has raised as a starting point to stimulate broader discussions about managing deer.
The Deer Hunting Seasons
Wisconsin is divided into nearly 130 deer management units, each with a population goal. These units are bounded by landmarks people can identify – rivers or roads. Population goals are set based on the number of deer the habitat can support and the number of deer that landowners will tolerate. The deer herd in each unit has a specific sex and age structure that may or may not be acceptable to people.
Well-being of Wildlife and People
The deer herd affects plants and animals, wild and domestic. It also raise human health concerns (Lyme disease) and safety issues (car/deer collisions). Concerns about how deer potentially harm livelihoods and property need to be addressed.
Our ability to manage deer in Wisconsin changes as land use and land access change. Development forces the herd to move. Hunters are less welcome on some private property than in past years or may be asked to lease hunting privileges. Hunting on public lands has become more crowded and other users want access to these properties during the deer hunting season.
Paying for Future Deer Management
Deer management programs are almost entirely funded by hunting license fees and excise taxes on hunting equipment. Since the herd affects a larger group, should others help pay the cost of herd management?
Kevin Wallenfang works for DNR's deer management program and recently started coordinating the Deer 2000 Project.