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Guest Column: Bring Back More Hunting Oversight

by J.B. SENSENBRENNER

It’s been six years since deer tagging and in-person deer registration were eliminated in Wisconsin. Today, 37 other states require physical tagging of deer, so Wisconsin hunters were surprised when the state discontinued tagging and physical carcass registrations. Why? Wisconsin seemed to have one of the best deer-hunting management programs in the country. 

Let’s look at the history of Wisconsin deer management to try to understand.

• 1851: The first closed season for deer was held Feb. 1 – June 30.

• 1920: Legislation was passed to make it mandatory to immediately lock metal tags on harvested deer. 

• 1928: Deer hunters were required to wear conservation buttons while hunting. 

• 1933: The Conservation Congress – an advisory group representing public opinion – began assisting the Conservation Committee in setting deer-management policy. 

• 1934: The first official archery hunting season was held. 

• 1942: Hunter back tags were required while hunting. 

• 1945: Shotgun-only counties were set, and red clothing was required while hunting. 

• 1953: Hunters were required to register deer in person at check-in stations. 

• 1967: The hunter-safety education program began. 

• 1980: Blaze-orange clothing was required during the gun deer season.

Wisconsin deer hunting flourished, with trending higher deer harvests and hunter numbers.

In 2016, tagging was eliminated and replaced by electronic and call-in reporting. That meant no back tags, no carcass tags, no paper licenses, no in-person registration. Why?

The state explained that it was a cost-cutting measure because 50 cents per license sale was saved, and about the same amount was saved when mandatory in-person registration and check-in stations were eliminated. 

The results? Hunters who camped and/or hunted in rural areas couldn’t report their kills because there was no internet or cellular service, but they felt that it didn’t matter anyway because the state didn’t really care anymore – the state just wanted the high deer population killed. 

Commercial meat processors no longer checked for carcass tags to make sure that deer were registered. They said it wasn’t their responsibility. 

The monitoring of chronic wasting disease (CWD) was severely hampered when deer couldn’t be inspected at authorized registration check-in stations because there weren’t any. It was also tougher to report trespassing or to see whether hunters had licenses because there were no back tags. 

Hunters wondered why there were no back tags because they were part of the hunting heritage. They remembered how proud they felt when they were 12 years old and pinned their first red, yellow or green back tag onto the back of their hunting coat. It was like getting the red badge of courage – a sign of their adulthood. 

Hunters grumbled that perhaps as high as 30% of harvested deer weren’t reported. The problems grew bigger when people thought, ‘Why bother buying licenses or antlerless tags or even registering deer?’ Deer were often butchered in camps, eaten and/or put in coolers without being registered because there weren’t any tags or internet or cell phone service. And no one really cared anyway. 

Hunters missed seeing other deer kills at check-in stations. It was part of the lore. It was part of the community. There were no local deer-kill head counts. No talk of big bucks being taken. 

Finally, license and tag sales declined. The state lost revenue. Were fewer people hunting, or was it just that fewer people were buying hunting licenses and tags? The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reported that 849,778 deer-hunting licenses (archery and gun) were sold in 2015, and only 824,475 in 2017. That was 25,303 fewer licenses in two years since tagging and check-in registrations had been eliminated.

Data shows that the numbers have continued to decline year over year. The most recent data is for 2021, when 795,039 total deer-hunting licenses (gun, bow, cross bow and patron) licenses were sold. 

The state’s deer-hunting management system is broken, but it can be fixed. Wisconsin can join the 37 other states that require tagging, and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress voted this spring in favor of returning to tagging and in-person carcass registration. 

Responsible hunting and effective deer management can be restored very economically during the 2023 season. In fact, the state will probably realize higher license/tag sales revenue. Tags can be issued as licenses, back tags and deer tags as an all-in-one piece of paper. Mandatory tagging of deer immediately after they’re killed can be enforced, and deer can be checked in to verify a proper kill and physically inspect for age, health and CWD at authorized registration stations. Commercial meat processors can ensure that deer are legally taken by observing harvest tags attached to an antler or ear. There will no longer be fuzzy numbers of the deer kill, but instead, good, hard data that the Wisconsin DNR can use to manage the herd.

If you care about this issue, contact your local state legislator by phone, letter or email to say you want to bring back tagging and mandatory, in-person deer registration for the 2023 hunting season.

Let’s return Wisconsin to its rank as the number-one deer-hunting state with the best management program. Let’s eliminate CWD. Let’s all join together to continue our rich deer-hunting heritage.

Find out more specifics about how to get involved by emailing J.B. Sensenbrenner at [email protected]