MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin wildlife officials agreed Wednesday to eliminate in-person deer check stations by next year, doing away with a cornerstone of hunting tradition to save money and process data faster.
The provision was part of a sweeping rules package implementing Texas researcher James Kroll's recommendations on how to improve hunting in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker's administration hired Kroll in 2011 to review the Department of Natural Resources' deer policies; agency officials have been working to meld his suggestions into their regulations for months.
The DNR's board approved the package on a unanimous voice vote after nearly four hours of discussion. Board members said the new rules will give hunters a stronger voice in local herd management.
"Yes!" DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said seconds after the vote. "It's such an exciting time in deer management in this state. We will not waste this opportunity."
The rules call for a host of changes, including reducing the number of deer management units from 134 to 72 based on county boundaries, simplifying population goals into broad statements such as "increase or decrease the herd," creating cheaper antlerless tags for landowners who agree to share data from kills with the DNR, and creating county committees that will recommend local population goals to the agency by next year. Perhaps the biggest on-the-ground shift is eliminating in-person registration.
Deer hunters have been hauling carcasses to hundreds of bars and convenience stores across the state to be counted for decades, showing off the carcasses to other hunters, buying snacks and beer and swapping stories. The DNR has relied on in-person registration as a means of gathering detailed information on kill totals, deer sex, age and health, and collecting tissue samples for chronic wasting disease tests.
Kroll argued remote registration would expedite kill tallies. The rules eliminate all check stations in favor of a mix of phone and online registration by 2015. DNR officials say such a move could save the agency as much as $182,000 a year.
Opponents have warned remote registration will lead to underreporting, the loss of face-to-face interaction and less data for the DNR as well as hurt bars, taverns and convenience stores' bottom lines.
"Our establishments serve as community gathering places, where sportsmen come together to share the successes and failures of the day's hunt," Wisconsin Tavern League Executive Director Pete Madland said in a statement to the board Wednesday. "Eliminating this revenue stream from these small businesses would be another financial hardship for them to bear."
Supporters, though, say remote registration will be far more convenient for hunters, especially when they're dozens of miles from the nearest check-in station.
"If you make it easier for people to register more people will register there deer without wasting gas, time (greener) for everyone," hunter Kyle Olinski wrote in a Dec. 24 email to the board. "'taking the fun out of deer hunting because they can't show off there deer at the registration station' What??? How about a picture on your cell phone and send it out to your friends and the world. Please pass this it makes sense."
Eric Lobner, a DNR wildlife supervisor coordinating the rules package, told the board Wisconsin was one of only three Midwestern and Eastern states that still register deer on paper, and that Wisconsin turkey and geese hunters already register their kills by phone. DNR officials have said, too, that they're pondering other ways of collecting deer data, including requiring random in-person registrations, requiring hunters to send in deer jaws or taking tissue samples from deer that hunters deliver to meat processors.
Stepp called the paper system "extraordinarily burdensome." She said she understands the tradition of in-person registration and the economic impact, but suggested taverns and stores could still pull in hunters with biggest buck contests and other promotions.
George Meyer, a former DNR secretary who now serves as executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, questioned why the agency is considering any of Kroll's recommendations. He said hunters generally have been satisfied since the Legislature eliminated earn-a-buck, a DNR herd control plan that required hunters to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck.
Board members disagreed with his claim, pointing out hunters in northern Wisconsin killed 15 percent fewer deer this year than last. Stepp said current DNR policy "ain't working."