Asking someone to make a prediction as to how hunters will fare days before the 2012 deer hunting season isn’t any easier than trying to predict an earthquake.
You can do it, but with so many variables it’s almost like flipping a coin.
Kris Belling, the Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife supervisor for the west-central region, paused for a few seconds when the question was put to her this week.
“Barring some weird weather scenario that prevented people from getting out,” Belling said, “there’s nothing jumping out as a red flag that makes me think things would be worse than last year.”
The traditional nine-day firearms deer season opens Saturday across the state.
Hunters registered 347,711 white-tailed deer in all deer hunting seasons in 2011, including 228,629 in the nine-day gun season, a 3.6 percent increase from 2010 and more than the previous two years.
The gun harvest also included the most bucks killed since 2007, and the buck kill among bow hunters was the third highest in history.
Chippewa County bucked that trend, so to speak, and was one of only a handful of counties in the 19-county west-central DNR region to show a decline in its total gun deer harvest, of 2.8 percent.
The reasons for optimism this year are several: a mild winter and early spring that was conducive to the deer herd; a weather forecast for opening weekend that may be warmer than ideal but won’t discourage hunters from staying in the woods (sunny with highs in the 40s); and the fact that this year is the earliest opener possible in Wisconsin, with deer more liable to be in their mating season.
Add to all that the dry fall that enabled farmers to tackle their corn crop, giving deer one less place to hide, and about the only negative is there won’t be a covering of snow come Saturday.
“Snow obviously is ideal. Rain is quite miserable. It affects the hunter more than the deer. The benefit of the early season is seeing deer that are losing their minds,” Belling said of the rut. While wet areas in the woods won’t be frozen, some marshes are dry anyway, enabling more access.
Last year, two of the deer management units in Chippewa County, 24 and 59A, were treated as regular units as far as the number of permits issued, while 23 and 59B were under herd control with fewer permits. This season only unit 59B is classified as herd control.
Belling noted that some of the northern areas that are more forested haven’t shown the signs of growth as the areas have with more farmland.
A good indicator of the deer herd comes each summer when the DNR analyzes the deer to fawn ratio. This year areas of the north came in below what was expected.
“Part of the reason is there tends to be older forests, with upper-level canopy and not as much vegetation on the ground,” Belling said. With newer forests there is better cover for the deer and more vegetation within reach.
But populations in areas with more farmland have been encouraging. Just don’t ask Belling to declare how things will go on opening weekend.
“It’s hard because of the variables,” she said. “It depends so much on where we are.”
This year there was no October gun hunt for antlerless deer, which had existed in other parts of the state. There also is no Earn-A-Buck requirement for the first antlered deer.
The DNR also stopped issuing population estimates after the deer trustee appointed last year by Gov. Scott Walker recommended it. But DNR spokesman Ed Culhane said there are more than 1 million deer roaming around.
Even if the overall statewide population isn’t where it was in the 1990s, signs are the herd is beginning to grow.
Hunters statewide say they are seeing more “trophy-sized” bucks this fall, deer with bigger racks, bigger bodies and heavier weight. Many white-tailed does with twin fawns and others with triplets have also been reported.
The Associated Press and Lee Newspapers contributed to this story.