Deer Hunt Avery Gehl

Avery Gehl of Somerset harvested this five-point whitetail on Nov. 20, at 7:10 a.m. It was her first deer.

If you were a whitetail deer in the state of Wisconsin, you might be breathing a little easier as the number of orange vests in the woods during gun season declined again in 2021 continuing a trend that started in 2016.

According to preliminary data as of Nov. 28, from the Wisconsin DNR, 2021 sales for gun, bow, crossbow, sports and patron licenses reached 808,224. Of that total, 502,148 were for deer gun and sports licenses only. 

The year-to-date sales for all deer licenses are down 1.5% from the same time last year. 60% of the licenses were sold online, 40% were sold by DNR license agents. The sale of non-resident licenses increased.

According to the DNR's preliminary count for the nine-day firearm deer hunt, which ended on Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, overall statewide, antlered and antlerless, the harvest was down 7.9% from the 2020 harvest. Hunters harvested a total of 175,667 deer, 84,952 antlered and 90,715 antlerless.

In St. Croix and the surrounding counties of Polk, Pierce, Barron, Dunn and Pepin the harvest was down by an average of 12.6%. Overall the Central Farmland Zone saw a 8.9% decline in the harvest. The only deer management zone that saw an increase was the Northern Forest Management Zone up 9.3% from the 2020 harvest.

What does that mean? Less deer? Less hunters? Bad luck?

It is more complicated than a simple “yes.”

Despite the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease across the state (it is substantially more prevalent in the southern half of the state), the deer herd population, according to the DNR’s post hunt research, remains relatively consistent locally.. 

Weather inevitably affects each year’s hunt differently. Until recently, the “weather” for the nine-day hunt, traditionally scheduled for the middle of November, year over year generally evened out, some good years, some not so good. Climate change is predicted to warm Wisconsin’s climate anywhere from 2 to 4.5 degrees. That increase will likely reduce the severity of winters (less snowfall, more rain), decreasing the mortality rate in the deer herd but also increasing the presence of different diseases. 

There are less hunters every year. A survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were roughly 17 million active hunters in the U.S. in the early 1980s. By 2016 that number had dropped to 11.5 million representing just 4% of the country’s population. Baby boomers are aging out of the hunting population. It is a lot easier to drag a deer out of the woods when you are 35 as opposed to when you are 65 or 70. Old bones do not appreciate spending hours in a treestand in freezing temperatures. 

Despite novel efforts to recruit younger hunters and people who never considered hunting before, the competition for their time and money is significant. In the last couple years, movements to live off the land, eat local and the inclusion of wild game in a healthier diet have drawn the unversed into the sport but not in numbers great enough to supplant the numbers leaving it. 

Promoting hunting as a way to access the larger world of conservation and the environment has stiff competition from many other outdoor activities like birding, biking, hiking, camping, and paddling which can end up costing less and are just as engaging. 

Women are the fastest growing segment of the hunting population. The long-term issue with women is that the competition for their time is even greater than for men when raising a family becomes a consideration.

Maybe the biggest challenge will ultimately be the lost revenue.

Deer hunting is big, big business in Wisconsin. 

According to Eric Lobner Director of Wildlife Management for the DNR, Wisconsin hunters spend $2.1 billion in retail sales and contribute $235 million to the state and local economies. According to a 2016 study by the DNR, almost 90% of the state fish and wildlife budget comes from state licenses and federal excise taxes purchased or paid for by hunters, anglers, trappers and shooters. 

Less hunters means less money for conservation, a lot less. Alternatives include raising hunting and fishing license fees, increasing the price of duck stamps and creation of a conservation legacy fund paid for by increasing the state sales tax. Outdoor activities like hiking, birding and paddling will also need to explore creative ways to raise funds to replace revenues lost from hunting licenses or a significant number of federal and state conservation programs could be severely impacted.

Tom Lindfors is a western Wisconsin freelance journalist and former Star-Observer reporter. Contact him at

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