Sunday, February 7, 2016

Dr. Deer's Devalued Experience

Hunting in the Days of the Czar

"[Cheap] deer tags will only devalue the experience."  Dr. Kroll (deer Czar)

"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."  Aldous Huxley 
 Last month I was appointed by Wisconsin DNR Secretary, Cathy Stepp to the Manitowoc County Deer Advisory Committee as the DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program - land owner cooperator) seat.  I suspect that this occurred because for the last year I was the only DMAP participant in the county though this may have recently changed.  For certain, I was the only one to have applied.  On February 6th I attended the necessary training for that post in Stevens Point.  

CDAC is the offspring and brain child of the Kroll Deer Trustee Report that came about after newly elected Governor Walker came to office claiming that former Governor Doyle had allowed the DNR to decimate the deer herd despite the fact that under Doyle the deer harvest had in fact hit all time highs.  The political assumption was that Kroll would restore the harvest to those glorious levels.  The last two harvests have been stuck at 30 year lows

What I learned was that there was remarkably little to know about being a voting CDAC member except the directive to follow your gut feelings.  The over all impression I got from the DMAP break out session is that the program coordinator Robert Nack was in effect, presenting few actual facts but asking what we would like to see in the way of "metrics" of the deer herd.

I probably shouldn't be surprised because a long look at the DNR CDAC website had a good deal of the available information about the previous decisions made by Manitowoc and other counties and the sole decision that the committees are allowed to make which is, whether to attempt to increase, lower or maintain the herd numbers in their counties.  There are a number of such "metrics" available such as a very rough estimate of the herd size in any given county.  When I say rough, I mean REALLY rough since as their website admits, no actual county by count count has ever been done.  Instead, population estimates have been cobbled together by count data developed in the old Deer Management Unit (DMU) system now abolished by Kroll and the Legislature.  While there are a few other peripheral bits of data like deer pregnancy rates (derived from road kill autopsies) and some really subjective things like crop damage claims by farmers that is about it.

Note that I call crop damage claims as "subjective" because even as the harvest has dropped by 50% deer related claims have quadrupled leaving me to suspect that other factors are at work here.  The number of claims is in fact so low (3) that it is hardly a valid consideration even though the dollar amount of around $20,000 is up considerably.  Still it is hardly a factor with only 3 recent claims.

Neither is there any county by county car/deer accident data.  It simply does not exist.  State wide it has been relatively unchanged in the last 30 years.  A similar situation exists for fawn/doe ratios.   Another anomaly is that it appears that all of the decisions made for the 2015 season were done with data from 2013 or older.  None of the tables for deer harvest go beyond 2013.

Getting back to the one identifiable duty of the committee, to decide to increase or decrease the herd, one particular statistic on the report sticks out...  Hunter IMPRESSIONS of the state of the herd.  At no point in the twenty years covered by the survey does the number of respondents expressing the belief that the herd numbers are UP exceed 16%.  This despite the fact that through 2000 the harvest had exponentially risen exponentially for almost a century!  Of course, now that the numbers are down, so are the number that believe that too.  Politics it seems, have hidden the realities.
Beliefs sometimes argue harder than facts
Herd mgt choices by county

Let me repeat that for emphasis:
Over time, an average of only 10% of hunters believed the deer herd was growing despite record harvests.
Then I looked at what CDACs decided county by county and only a small handful of counties opted
to reduce their herds.  Manitowoc happens to be one of them.  And in fact this year the harvest was up which might tend to support that choice.  However, the solution (the only hammer available) is to issue more antlerless (doe) permits on the theory that dropping the female population will slow the birth rate and thus stem herd growth.  It should be noted that the issuance of additional tags of any sort will by nature, increase the kill.

Private Land Data (note buck/doe ratios)
Previously, this was encouraged by a program called Earn A Buck (EAB), a much reviled policy of only allowing the taking of a buck after a hunter had killed a doe.  In those days CDAC presented data shows that antlerless harvest was as high as 2.8 X the number of bucks taken on private land and a staggering 3.5 X the buck harvest taken on public land (Manitowoc 2008 data).  By comparison, in the two years prior to the new program when EAB had already been cancelled the ratio on private land was 1 to 1 but remained at 1.4 and 1.3 times the buck totals on public land even without the inducement.

The reasons for this are obvious.  Public land hunters have fewer options so if they want to take a
deer they will and do take what comes along. Failure to do so will mean a competitor will most likely take.  You will not get a second chance.  With the success rate at less than 50%, any deer is better than none.   Private land hunters can take their time and if they want a buck they are much more likely to get an opportunity to get one because they face no competition and the only time limit is the end of the season. 

Pubic Land Data buck/doe ratios nearly double
Since all licenses come with both a buck and doe tag the incentive to take a doe is low and the incentive to purchase an extra one is even lower.  And although private land hunters occupy about 25 times the land area as public land hunters, extra antlerless tags on the latter typically add up to 1/3 of all extra females taken.   Yet, last years CDAC committee allocated only 150 total public land tags.   2015 data has not been officially published on CDAC material as yet so it isnt known how many of those 150 tags were used.  However, in most years prior, that limit was easily exceeded even without the more coercive EAB program.

The lesson from this should be that public land hunters are eager to get a deer and will take what they can get and in a county that has declared itself in a hurry to reduce the herd, limiting public land tags would seem counter productive.  Of course, this is before you ask the obvious question of why the Czar would segregate public and private lands tags in the first place...  The price of the second tag is already enough to discourage some but the abject lack of public tags is an absolute barrier.  At least in counties like Manitowoc where the stated 3 year goal is to reduce the herd, the current program is rather obviously less effective than the older ones which is most obvious on public lands.

There is a similar disconnect in counties that have opted to increase their herds.  Again, the theory and singular tool given to counties is the antlerless permit.  The most notable counties in question are those in the southern woodland zone which include parts of Eau Claire, Wood, Jackson, Adams, Clark and Monroe. (notice most are split creating two zones in each)  So, the option is solely to cut the availability of doe tags, usually meaning - no does at all.

Yet, if you look at road kill data, the rump fat for yearling does in both central and northern forest areas are much lower than farmland counties.  Similar tables for pregnancy and litter size fat tell the same story.  What this is telling us is that the carrying capacity of those areas has already been hit since the available forage is either scarce or low quality resulting in poorer nutrition hence the poorer health metrics with lower birth rates, thinner animals and (presumably) higher death rates.

 Failure to take does in that zone and increasing the herds there will only make it worse.  And of course there is the obvious irony of denying hunters the ability to take an available deer in the name of making more deer available.  It would seem that if you really wanted to make more deer (and healthier ones) you would engage in habitat improvement but that takes money and management and spending is not in the plan, just higher fees.  However, we are told that spending more for tags will enhance your experience.

In the end,  we appear to have fewer options for a higher price and poorer results.  The Czar's pronouncement of the value of higher fees tells us much.  "Cheap doe tags only devalue the experience!"   Apparently paying more in fees is a thing to be valued, even when a huge portion of the value has been taken away. 

Why am I not happy about that?

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