Wild Side: Our uneasy relationship with deerWhitetail deer are beautiful animals. They are graceful and strong, able to leap high and run up to 30 miles per hour. Deer are acutely aware of their surroundings with excellent vision, hearing and sense of smell. We enjoy watching them. Many of us also enjoy hunting and eating them.
By: Dan Wilcox, Outdoor Columnist, River Falls Journal
Whitetail deer are beautiful animals. They are graceful and strong, able to leap high and run up to 30 miles per hour. Deer are acutely aware of their surroundings with excellent vision, hearing and sense of smell. We enjoy watching them. Many of us also enjoy hunting and eating them.
After deer were nearly extirpated in Wisconsin in the early 1900s by unregulated hunting and market shooting, the Conservation Commission opened the first bucks-only hunting season in 1915. In 1924 only about 7,000 deer were shot state-wide. In 1925 the state Legislature passed a law closing deer hunting in alternate years.
Since the 1930s, the deer population in the state has grown to between 1.5 and 1.7 million today due to regulated hunting and changes in land use and land cover. In 2000, a record 694,957 hunters killed a record 528,494 deer.
Even after a harvest of 520,000 deer in last year’s hunting seasons, the deer herd is still larger than the DNR population goals throughout most of the state. The abundance of deer is providing plenty of hunting opportunity, but also plenty of problems.
Last week when driving home in the dark, I slowed down to turn into my driveway. I saw a large 8-point buck approaching from the edge of the headlight beam. I hit the brakes, skidding in the gravel. The buck ran right into the front of my vehicle, was knocked down, and immediately got up and ran off into the woods. Both of us were lucky. The deer was probably just bruised and there was no damage to my vehicle.
That incident was unlike others in previous years when Carol and I both hit deer with our cars, killing the deer and damaging the vehicles. Last year, over 35,000 deer-vehicle collisions occurred in Wisconsin. Fourteen people died in vehicle-deer crashes. An additional 100 people suffered incapacitating injuries and 250 people had less serious injuries.
Most deer-vehicle collisions occur during the rutting season in October and November when bucks throw caution to the wind and chase after does. The second-most frequent time for deer-vehicle collisions is in May and June during the fawning season when yearling deer are wandering away from their mothers. We have to be extra vigilant when driving during those times.
The high deer population is also causing problems with the ecology of forest areas. Deer browsing causes long term changes in the diversity of plant species and the recruitment of new trees. Excessive deer browsing lowers the carrying capacity of forest areas for deer and many other wildlife species. It’s easy to see the deer browse line in forest areas, especially on white cedar trees.
Deer have browsed and antler-damaged apple trees, tree nursery stock and planted forest trees on our place. Orchard and vineyard growers in Wisconsin have to invest in expensive high fencing to protect their crops.
Wisconsin farmers reported more than $1.6 million in crop damage caused by deer in 2007. The actual damage to crops caused by deer is much higher.
Lower abundance of deer in Wisconsin would be better. Recreational deer hunting is the best way to manage the deer population.
Deer hunting is a longstanding tradition in Wisconsin. On Saturday it’s time for hunters to suit up in blaze orange, get out into the woods and harvest some deer. Try to bring a new hunter along with you to help maintain the tradition and to manage the deer population.
Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at email@example.com.