MADISON — State wildlife officials reeling from hunter frustration and distrust announced a $2 million project to better track Wisconsin's deer population Wednesday.
Department of Natural Resources officials hope the effort will give them their best idea yet of how many deer roam the state and the threats they face — and generate confidence from hunters who lost faith in agency strategies after an anemic fall hunt.
"We have heard their concerns and we believe this is a significant action to ensure ... we have the best system possible," agency Secretary Matt Frank said.
Hunters have constantly complained about the DNR's regulations, but their anger boiled over in the fall after two years of poor hunts.
They insist the DNR overestimated the herd and imposed draconian reduction strategies, including multiple hunting seasons, more antlerless deer tags and earn-a-buck regulations, which require hunters to kill an antlerless deer before they can take a buck. They say those moves have devastated the deer population, putting their beloved sport's future in jeopardy.
Things got so heated, Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, D-Weston, called for the DNR to fire every employee involved in deer management.
The DNR's new project, dubbed "Investing in Wisconsin's Whitetails," calls for a host of initiatives, including:
EWorking with the University of Wisconsin System to research buck and fawn mortality, including evaluations of how weather, habitat, hunting and predators such as wolves and bears affect the population.
ETagging deer with radio collars.
EWorking with UW-Madison and UW-Stevens Point to study hunter participation and develop retention strategies.
EContinuing chronic wasting disease research.
EHiring a postdoctoral researcher to evaluate the usefulness of car-deer collision data in population estimates.
EExpanding a database of hunter observations.
EImproving communications with stakeholders, including appointing a team to relay information to hunters, revamping the agency's Web page and looking at online social networking sites.
EContinual online progress reports, likely as often as quarterly.
"This is the largest investment in deer management in our history," DNR big game ecologist Keith Warnke said.
The money for the project comes from a surge in Wisconsin's share of federal taxes on firearms and ammunition.
Warnke said some of the initiatives could take up to five years or longer to complete. Hunter participation will be crucial, he said.
Ed Harvey, president of the Conservation Congress, an influential group of sportsmen who advise the DNR, said the research project is just what the agency needs to rekindle confidence.
"We've been pushing for it for months," Harvey said. "We've been pushing for something a little less extensive than what they're proposing. They're one-upping us and that's a great thing. It's exactly what's needed."