Plenty of Deer in Wisconsin, but a Record?

Not by a long shot

There’s no doubt that many Wisconsin hunters love to rip on the Department of Natural Resources’ deer-population estimates, and that’s one of the reasons why the agency got away from making them public during Gov. Walker’s tenure. Even if the scientific data backed them up – and they almost always did – many hunters just can’t wrap their head around a pre-hunt population estimate of more than a million deer statewide.

Area deer hunters will still have a lot of opportunities after the regular nine-day gun season ends Dec. 1. A 10-day muzzleloader deer hunt will run Dec. 2-11, and a four-day, antlerless-only firearm deer season will run Dec. 12-15. Door and Kewaunee counties are also included in a holiday antlerless-only firearm deer hunt Dec. 24-Jan. 1, and Kewaunee County archers and crossbow users will see their season extended to Jan. 31 for the first time.

Never mind that Wisconsin has more than 54,158 square miles of land area, a total of more than 34 million acres. That’s more than 866,000 40-acre parcels, so to speak. With just two deer per 40 acres, you’d have more than 1.7 million whitetails. 

Of course, not all land area is good deer habitat. For example, the DNR considers “deer range” to be only forests, marshes and some grasslands. Vast farm fields and urban areas don’t count, even though whitetails take advantage of the food and sanctuary found in such places.

Full disclosure: I’ve hunted and fished with more than a dozen DNR staffers through the years, including biologists, researchers and wardens. Critics who say the DNR consists of nothing but clueless pencil-pushers sitting in cubicles in Madison are wrong. 

Many are extremely avid outdoorspeople; some even hunt multiple species in more than one state or Canadian province. In other words, they’re passionate about the outdoors, and I’m often in agreement on many hunting issues.

That said, even an eternal optimist like me did a jaw-drop when I read that the DNR estimated the state’s pre-hunt deer herd at 1.97 million animals.

To put that number into perspective, the estimate in 1989 was 1.15 million, and more than 356,000 were tagged by hunters; in 1999, it was 1.5 million to 1.6 million, and 494,407 deer were taken to registration stations. Thirteen times between 1991 and 2008, deer harvests were larger than 400,000, including four at more than a half-million. 

For the past decade, we’ve barely been topping 300,000 a year. Some of the cause, no doubt, is hunters who are leery of shooting too many does after what many believe was overuse of earn-a-buck in farm country and bonus antlerless tags up north.

But DNR wildlife biologists always say the buck kill is the true barometer of the deer population. The last season when we topped 170,000 bucks was in 2007 – 12 years ago. During the past six years, we’ve averaged about 152,000, which is 60,000 fewer than the 2000 season record of 212,512.

I’m all in believing that farmland counties may have near-record deer-population levels. However, the north – even with a herd still well beyond goals if you’re trying to regenerate timber species – is nowhere near where it was two decades ago. That’s not just an opinion. The buck kill bears it out, county after county.

A drop in hunter numbers is surely playing a role. An increase in predators – wolves, coyotes, bobcats and black bears – may be as well. There have been a few hard winters sprinkled in, too, and old-growth or deer-damaged forests can’t support nearly as many whitetails as young, healthy woodlands. 

The good news for hunters (not foresters) is that deer numbers appear to be rebounding across the north. Still, there are no guarantees. Even in the best years, only about one in four hunters shoots a buck. 

But let’s also keep things in perspective: As much as many like to complain, Wisconsin is a perennial leader in record-book bucks and bears, and it always ranks near the top nationally in deer, bear and wild-turkey harvests. 

A hundred years ago, in 1919, an estimated 25,152 whitetails were killed in the entire state. Nowadays, gun hunters shoot more than that on opening morning.

The year when I was born (1962), the statewide herd was estimated at about 400,000 deer. Between 1991 and 2008, hunters shot more than that 13 times, including three seasons of more than a half-million tagged and one at more than 615,000.

Longtime friend and outdoor writer Paul Smith emailed this week, “I think the farmland areas, where most of the state’s deer population is found, are bloated with deer.”

Of course, he’s right. And he’s also right that it might take a severe winter to do what a lot of hunters don’t seem to want to do: kill more antlerless deer. 

Harvest Could Top 8,000

As of Nov. 19, Door archers had reported 372 whitetails, including 183 bucks. Kewaunee County vertical-bow hunters had reported 332, with 177 of them bucks. The crossbow count was higher, with Door at 644 (341 bucks) and Kewaunee County at 472 (256 bucks).

Including the youth gun hunt, 2,008 deer had already been trimmed from the Kewaunee/Door peninsula five days prior to the gun opener.

Based on the recent performance, Kewaunee/Door hunters could be expected to top 8,000 deer this season. The Door record is more than 5,000; Kewaunee County has been logging between 3,500 and 3,800 whitetails during the past three years. 

To do that, though, hunters will need to use more of the free antlerless deer authorizations that they received with their license. Check out the benefits of harvesting does at

More Deer Hunting

The nine-day gun deer hunt runs through Dec. 1, and a 10-day muzzleloader deer season follows Dec. 2-11. A four-day, antlerless-only deer hunt then runs Dec. 12-15.

Door and Kewaunee counties are included in the holiday gun deer antlerless hunt Dec. 24 – Jan. 1, and Kewaunee County will be in the extended bow and crossbow hunt for the first time. Door opted out this season.

No Trespassing

Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski said there’s no excuse for trespassing on private property, and citations will be issued.

“This is pretty self-explanatory,” Joski said. “If you don’t have permission to be there, don’t be there.”

Donate Deer to Help Those in Need

Donate deer this season at Haberli’s Deer Processing (920.743.5736), Marchant’s Foods (920.825.1244) and Theys Venison Processing (920.609.0309).