MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials told their board Tuesday that cold weather and a struggling northern herd contributed to a disappointing gun deer season.
Preliminary totals show hunters killed 226,582 deer during the nine-day hunt, down 7 percent from last year. The buck kill was down 15 percent. The antlerless harvest was unchanged.
The northern area of the state saw a 15 percent decline in total harvest, the sharpest overall drop in any region.
DNR officials gave the Natural Resources Board a quick overview of the hunt during a meeting that was moved to the state Department of Public Instruction after pipes burst in the DNR's headquarters, leaking water on seven of the building's eight floors and forcing staff to leave.
Tom Hauge, the DNR's wildlife management director, told the board frigid temperatures on opening weekend forced hunters out of the woods. Nearly half of the harvest took place that weekend, but it was down nearly 18 percent from last season's opening two days and set the tone for the hunt.
"(The cold) did challenge hunters to stay in the field," he said. "Opening weekend is crucial. As goes opening weekend, so goes the tally for the deer season. We typically won't make that up even if the weather does improve the rest of the season."
He also noted the long 2012-13 winter took a toll on the northern herd, resulting in fewer fawns and a lack of food that translated to weaker antler development.
"If you were hunting in the northern forest, you were up against Mother Nature and reduced deer populations," Hauge said.
He noted the DNR reduced antlerless permits by 37,000 this year, with most of the reduction in the north as the agency tries to rebuild the herd in that region. Agency officials warned hunters all summer that the northern herd is still trying to recover, he added.
Board member Gregory Kazmierski pointed out the southern region saw a 20 percent decline in buck harvest. He said people were finding a lot of winterkill deer last spring, but the DNR didn't adjust. Kazmierski added that the agency should be more responsive to local input.
Hauge said the agency will continue to review data and look for more clues about why the hunt was down.
DNR officials emphasized that efforts to retain hunters are working. The agency had predicted hunter numbers would decline from 2010 through 2015, but they held steady in 2012 and 2013 at around 633,500 each year.
About 65,000 resident female hunters purchases licenses this year, up 5 percent from 2012. The number of female hunters has grown 25 percent since 2007.
The number of resident male hunter dropped from nearly 540,000 in 2012 to 535,000 this year, however.