Density problem still exists in Waupaca County
By Daniel Schmidt
I’ve never met a hunter who said they wanted fewer deer on their hunting property and the grass always does seem a bit greener when comparing your individual hunting situation with what surely must be better somewhere else.
Over that past 23 years of working closely with deer hunters, wildlife biologists and researchers, I can confidently say it does not get any better than what we have here in Waupaca County.
Compared to the rest of country, Waupaca County is near the top for fawn production, trophy buck potential and hunting success rates.
That being said, we still face major challenges. Here are five of them:
1. Deer density problem still exists
Many Waupaca County deer hunters will only believe what they see on their own hunting property. This is human nature and understandable, especially for the hard-working hunters of this county. While some private parcels are more populated with deer than others, the fact remains that Waupaca County is in the upper 1 percent for highest deer densities in Wisconsin and the nation.
Wisconsin currently has 45 counties with deer densities that exceed 40 whitetails per square mile of habitat. This is not to say that every square mile will have that many deer. Some have way more; some have way less. This is the average. Of those counties, 30 have more than 50 deer per square mile (dpsm). Before the 2017 fawning season, Brown County had a deer density of 88 dpsm; Shawano, 75; Lafayette, 70; and Richland, 66.
Waupaca County exceeded all of those with an estimated deer density of 92 deer per square mile (44,000 deer on 480 square miles of habitat). That was before fawning season.
How could we possibly have that many deer, you ask? It’s easy and complicated at the same time. With the surging popularity of private-land management — featuring many acres of food plots planted strictly for deer — it has become a textbook example of the haves and have-nots. If you have the food on your property, you will have the preponderance of the deer for a majority of the time.
The land’s carrying capacity will ultimately dictate the maximum number of deer that should be living on the landscape. For all intents and purposes, few counties in America are diverse enough to provide enough food, water and cover to accommodate more than 35 deer per square mile without harming the ecosystem.
2. Forests are in sad shape
Make no mistake about it: Deer have changed the ecological sustainability of our Waupaca County woodlands.
Whitetails are selective browsers, meaning they target those portions of a plant that provide optimum nutrition. In woodland settings, these mean the new-growth buds and shoots from native plants, shrubs and tree species.
Walk any woodlot from Hartman Creek State Park north to Big Falls and you will invariably find understories of highly invasive non-native plants, trees and shrubs. Oak and hickory forests are being choked out by Japanese honeysuckle, Japanese barberry, glossy and common buckthorn, Russian and autumn olive and multiflora rose.
Decades of deer overabundance — and the subsequent overbrowsing of preferred woody species (oak, maple, aspen, etc.) — have led to the proliferation of these invasive understories and a 100-year “Legacy Effect” on our Waupaca County woodlands.
In layman’s terms, that means it would take a century for our forests to return to native plant succession cycles if our white-tailed deer population densities were brought to scientifically prescribed numbers. In the case of Waupaca County, that would mean reducing the herd by nearly two-thirds its current status.
3. We can’t rely on Old Man Winter
Although some whitetails will die each year from harsh winter weather throughout Wisconsin, widespread regional deer die-offs are rare in central Wisconsin, especially in Waupaca County.
Winter mortality in the central farmland region has only been cited as a main concern for the area’s deer herd three times over the past 50 years: 1967, 1979 and 2013.
For this reason, combined with the area’s incredible productivity rate, winter mortality losses are concentrated aberrations when compared to managing the county’s overall deer population. In other words, winter mortality losses should not be included in any long-range population dynamics model. In the event that massive winter losses would occur, a simple adjustment in harvest strategy would provide for an almost immediate correction.
4. Trophy regulations only divide our community
Waupaca County has hundreds – if not thousands – of well-educated hunters who live in our towns and hunt our woodlands. Some of them are working year-round to help draft strategies that will leave our whitetail resource in good hands for future generations.
Although some forms of limiting the buck harvest during the hunting season might help with our deer density problems, antler-point restrictions (APR) is not one of them.
According to more than 60 years worth of scientific data from Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and California, APRs on antlered cervidspose two major pitfalls within the hunting community.
First, the number of accidental kills (bucks not meeting the stated APR stipulation) goes unreported every year. Second, and more importantly, APRs skew the hunting focus more heavily on males of certain age classes, virtually wiping them out of the population during years of good hunting conditions. Researchers found better results by limiting license sales through ideas like one-buck rules.
However, these limitations bring their own consequences, such as illegal tagging (using someone else’s tag on a second buck) and a marked decline in hunting participation.
Some hunters have pointed to the mandatory APR implementation in Pennsylvania as a success. Although a majority of Pennsylvania hunters supported APRs at the outset of the program, that supported plummeted after three years, according to a report by the Wildlife Journal of Wildlife Management.
In a 2017 review, biologists who conducted that research concluded, “APRs may not provide what hunters want and expect. The APRs implemented in Pennsylvania did not create sufficient changes in the demography of the deer population to be readily perceived by hunters.” Data also shows that total buck harvest declined by over 50 percent with state-mandated APRs.
APRs are not rooted in anything scientifically beneficial for the health and well-being of the deer herd. Such regulations are merely an ill-advised attempt to pushy trophy hunting philosophies on the entire deer hunting community. This pits brother vs. brother and neighbor vs. neighbor.
One option that would appease both trophy hunters and deer managers would be to implement earn-a-buck (EAB) regulations. These regulations — used briefly in Waupaca County more than a decade ago — require a hunter to shoot an antlerless deer before “earning” the right to shoot an antlered buck.
EAB is a highly effective tool to reduce deer densities in areas with super-high deer densities, but they also come with problems centered on some hunters’ efforts to skirt the regulations. These include everything from illegal reporting to private-land hunters conducting deer drives on public lands to fill their tags so they can hunt bucks on their own properties.
5. Waupaca County will never be Buffalo County
Land stewards always want what’s best for their properties and deer hunters are especially aligned with those interests. A common theme among private-land deer managers these days is a utopian view of “what could be” if we only did this technique or enacted that regulation.
Those who know deer know that Wisconsin’s Buffalo County is home to giant bucks and a strong QDM ideal. The same can be said for entire regions of Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana.
The problem with such comparisons is that it’s truly like comparing apples to oranges. Let’s take the Buffalo County analogy. This western Wisconsin paradise is home to much larger farmland properties, huge rolling hills and breathtaking bluffs. It’s also home to the best soils along the Mississippi and fewer than 6,500 gun-deer hunters on 560 square miles of deer habitat.
Waupaca County is home to almost 16,000 deer hunters crammed onto 480 square miles of deer habitat.
The disparity is much greater if one would compare Waupaca County to any given county in any of those other states, where they all have very low single-digit hunter densities.
This discussion doesn’t even brush the tip of the looming chronic wasting disease iceberg.
CWD is more prevalent in older deer. Saving bucks so they live to older age classes in CWD areas has major drawbacks. The disease isn’t here yet. Let’s hope and pray that we don’t have to deal with it anytime soon.
• Daniel Schmidt has lived and hunted in Waupaca County since 1994. He is editor-in-chief of Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine, content director for F+W Outdoors and host of Saturday Night Deer Camp on Pursuit Channel. His award-winning “Whitetail Wisdom” blog can be found at www.deeranddeerhunting.com.