By the fall of 2010, the relationship between Wisconsin deer hunters and the state Department of Natural Resources had turned so publicly toxic that then gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker parlayed it into a campaign promise: Vote for me, he told the state’s nearly 1 million deer hunters, and I’ll appoint someone to fix what’s wrong with the DNR. Just 10 months after he was sworn into office, Gov. Walker signed Executive Order No. 44, directing the appointment of a “Whitetail Deer Trustee” (a term the local media quickly replaced with czar) to “review and evaluate Wisconsin’s deer herd management practices.”
The unprecedented move grants the trustee, who reports solely to the governor, full access to and cooperation from the DNR–which must also pay his salary. On Oct. 3, 2011, Walker named prominent Texas biologist James Kroll to the post. Popularly known as “Dr. Deer,” Kroll is now Wisconsin’s “deer czar”–and he says his team is creating a national model for deer management in the 21st century.
It’s not unusual for Wisconsin hunters to kill nearly half a million deer in a season. They are perennial leaders in the B&C and P&Y record books. From the outside looking in, the state’s deer program seems something to envy. But there has been a string of problems over the last decade and a half, mostly to do with herd reduction.
After years of encouraging hunters to kill does by offering more and cheaper antlerless permits, the DNR started mandating it in 1996 with a wildly unpopular Earn-a-Buck rule, requiring hunters to kill a doe before trying for a buck. This eventually covered 57 of 134 deer management units. The same areas also held special antlerless-only firearm seasons in October and December. In 2002, after three hunter-killed deer tested positive for chronic wasting disease in Dane County, the DNR established a CWD Management Zone, which now covers 8,819 square miles, implementing rifle seasons from September through March, providing free antlerless tags, and hiring sharpshooters to kill deer. Statewide, the agency issued more than a million doe tags in 2006. Hunters tolerated the changes while harvests boomed, from about 375,000 in 1994 to a record 615,293 in 2000.
But then the totals tumbled. The 2008 kill fell to about 450,000. And when the 2009 harvest came in at a comparatively paltry 329,103–the lowest in over 15 years–hunters erupted with complaints. They could live with herd reduction, they said, but not herd destruction. And they no longer trusted the agency’s population estimates, used to justify the new rules. The DNR declined several offers to detail its side of the story for this article, but its reaction at the time seems to have been that hunters were too slow or unwilling to accept the new realities of an overpopulated deer herd.
The result has been a total breakdown in trust and communication.
Fixing the problem, insists Gov. Walker, goes beyond politics. “Deer hunting is important on so many levels,” he says. “I’m a deer hunter, and I know what that heritage means to this state. It’s also an economic issue; deer hunters bring a lot of money to the hotels, restaurants, and businesses here. And finally, I’m acutely aware of the hunter recruitment and retention issue; we’re losing hunters, and we can’t afford to. Wisconsin simply wasn’t living up to its strong deer hunting reputation. It was time to do something.”
Time, apparently, to get a deer czar. “I detest that term,” says Kroll, a professor of forest wildlife management and director of the Institute for Whitetail Deer Management at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. “Czars always wind up dead in a ditch somewhere.” A widely respected biologist, game-management consultant, and TV personality, Kroll has researched whitetail deer from the Lone Star State to the far reaches of Alberta. “I consider this appointment to be the highlight of my 40-year career.”
Before his new position was even announced, Kroll started visiting restaurants and archery shops, trying to gauge the pulse of the average hunter. “There’s a severely fractured relationship between them and the agency,” he says. “Hunters pay the bills and have bellied up to the bar for deer management. They need to be respected and listened to and honored. CWD management is a perfect example; I went on television 10 years ago and predicted that Wisconsin’s eradication approach would be a failure, that their infection rate would remain at least the same. I was right about that, but the sad thing is that hunters in that zone are just deflated. Just recently I talked to a group of them and one asked, ‘Could you come up with something here that will put the fun back into hunting?'”
Of the people he spoke with, Kroll says the vast majority didn’t know who their area wildlife manager was or how to contact him. “That stood out to me as wrong. It is not the job of hunters to seek out biologists. It’s our job to go to them.” Hunters said they were especially skeptical of DNR deer population estimates, so Kroll requested reams of data from the DNR for analysis. “They delivered it on a forklift,” he says. “I also met with them for a serious question-and-answer session. I’d completely understand it if they resented me. But they didn’t show it. I hope I’ve shown them that I’m not here to be an axman.”
Kroll quickly enlisted the help of two other biologists with stellar credentials. The first was David Guynn. “David isn’t exactly a household name among deer hunters, but he should be,” says Kroll. At the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, Guynn invented the Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP), which brings biologists, hunters, and landowners together to work on whitetail management. “When David retired, the agency had the highest approval marks in its history, thanks largely to his work.”
Next, Kroll tapped Gary Alt of the infamous Pennsylvania “Deer Wars” (1999-2004), in which the state game agency launched a then unpopular program to reduce whitetail overpopulation by increasing doe harvests and instituting antler-point restrictions. As a deer program leader who wore a Kevlar vest while selling his changes to Keystone State sportsmen, Alt was intimately aware of how state agencies function and their vital–but often tenuous–relationship with hunters. “When Gov. Tom Ridge asked me to take over Pennsylvania’s deer program,” says Alt, “I told him, ‘Do you mean run it or fix it? Because if you want me to just run it, the answer is no. If you want me to fix it, I’ll consider–but it will end my career.” Alt took the job and retired five years later, citing political pressure.
The experience gave Alt a keen understanding of the mix of biology, politics, and people skills at the heart of game management in the new millennium. “The agency is like any institution–resistant to change and mired in tradition. Having the governor behind me meant I could create a team from the outside, jumping the normal chain of command. Once we had a plan, we had to sell it to roomfuls of hunters also mired in tradition and very capable of humiliating a biologist suggesting change. I saw colleagues virtually destroyed by the process.”
Despite being pilloried by nearly half of the hunters in Pennsylvania, Alt prevailed. His overhaul of Pennsylvania deer management is today widely viewed as a huge success. Now he’s back, in a new state and a strikingly similar situation. “I was nicknamed the deer czar, too,” he says. “And Pennsylvania hunters were nearly identical in their distrust of the agency, particularly its population model. But if this is played well and right, I think there are tremendous possibilities.”
The team has already analyzed the DNR’s data and delivered a preliminary report, citing a widespread “intense dissatisfaction” with the DNR, largely due to the agency’s population estimates, which the team deems to be flawed. “The [DNR] has placed an inordinate emphasis on…establishing population density goals which commonly aren’t met, while giving much less emphasis to habitat and people.” The DNR’s CWD eradication policy was also blamed for “a serious erosion” of public confidence in the agency and the relegation of whitetails to pest status.
Notable other criticisms included insufficient data on predation and a failure to work more closely with landowners. “There are 100 county-based wildlife biologists in Wisconsin,” says Kroll. “You teach them to visit landowners, and then they teach landowners to gather data and monitor whitetails and their habitat. It’s pretty hard for a landowner to argue with data he’s collected himself. Without that system, you’ve set up a dictatorial relationship based on regulation, not cooperation.”
The DNR has seemed largely nonplussed by the report. “Some of the things they’ve identified the department has known for a long, long time,” says big-game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang. “We know there are challenges. We’re not afraid of that.” Wallenfang points to a $2 million research project, launched well before Kroll’s arrival, to improve population estimates based on hunter observation and the impact of predators. “Still, we look forward to the final report, and we are always open to ideas that can improve our deer management system.”
A New National Model?
Real changes won’t begin until after the final report is submitted. Alt, who turned around a deeply entrenched Pennsylvania system, says, “The backing of the governor is huge. If he says something is important enough to fix, then it can be fixed.” At this writing, however, Walker faces a recall election. Kroll says, simply, “We’ll recommend changes. And if they’re not acted upon, count on me to be asking ‘Why?'”
Deer managers and industry professionals I talked to from around the country almost universally praise this particular team. But several worry that Walker’s precedent is a dangerous one. Off the record, one biologist called it a recipe for disaster. What if an avowed antihunting governor appoints a like-minded trustee to oversee game management? “I don’t see any more danger in that than in assuming your state game managers are hunters,” Kroll says. “In this day and age, many are not. I view this as an opportunity to create a model for 21st-century deer management. If this works the way I think it should, states will be lining up to hire a trustee.”
Biologists from two states noted for superb whitetail management, however, are less enthusiastic. “It’s important to remember that in Wisconsin, deer hunters have a lot of political clout,” says Iowa DNR deer researcher Tom Litchfield, who suggests that Wisconsin’s new model would not work in his state because “here, the farmers are in control.” Ohio’s Division of Wildlife program leader Mike Tonkovich is more blunt: “There’s not a lot I can say positively about this move. I know the biologists in Wisconsin, and there’s not a harder-working, more highly talented group of professionals around. I’m amazed, because they don’t seem to be insulted, and I know I would be. My guess is there isn’t going to be anything radical or earthshaking in what happens there. The squeaky wheels are just going to have to sit down and work it out. No deer czar, guru, or swami is going to walk in there and change it.”
Kroll’s team is undaunted. According to Alt, fixing Wisconsin deer hunting will involve more sociology than what most wildlife professionals are used to. “I don’t see this as a scientific problem,” he says. “There are lots of ways to manage deer. But there’s been a divorce between sportsmen and biologists here. If you can’t rebuild that relationship, hunters will circumvent the agency, go straight to the legislature, and dismantle the DNR piece by piece.”
“There may have to be a huge attitude change all around,” admits Kroll. “Most biologists are still operating under a herd-restoration mentality; they never gave it a thought that we’d ever have to be managing deer, but that’s where we are. And hunters are going to have to learn to do their part, too. If you don’t want to kill does, or think you have to shoot a spike buck every year, get over yourself, because what I say is not going to make you happy. If I can shift the mind-set of sportsmen from hunter-consumer to hunter-manager, I’ll die a happy man.”