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.”