Patrick Durkin: Hunters knocking down number of collared deer in Wisconsin
Three northwestern Wisconsin trophy bucks that researchers collared as youngsters in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in Sawyer County fell to hunters in November, including a 6.5-year-old 14-pointer that scored about 178 inches and weighed 216 pounds field-dressed.
The bucks were among 1,001 deer that biologists with the Department of Natural Resources and University of Wisconsin trapped and fitted with radio-transmitting collars from 2010 to 2014 to study survival rates on fawns and adult bucks. The studies occurred in two areas, one in forest habitats near Winter, and the other in eastern farmland habitats in southern Shawano and northern Waupaca counties.
Daniel Storm, the DNR researcher who led the studies, said about half of the project’s radio collars have been recovered since the studies began six years ago, including a dozen during this fall’s archery and firearms hunts. The DNR stopped monitoring the deer’s movements in 2015 as transmitter failures and an aging sample group made the data less informative.
Therefore, hunters provide valuable information to the DNR when they shoot a collared deer and report its identification numbers. The other two collared bucks killed near Winter were 4.5 and 5.5 years old, based on DNR records. They were shot during November’s nine-day firearms season, but the oldest buck fell Nov. 4 during archery season.
Storm wasn’t surprised that hunters, not four-legged predators, killed the bucks.
“Many people are unhappy about deer numbers in the North, but these bucks all lived on public lands; they survived the 2013-14 winter, which was our worst in 60 years; and they weren’t killed by wolves, coyotes, bobcats or black bears,” Storm said. “Our study found that human hunters are the forest’s top predators of adult bucks. These bucks reinforce that conclusion.”
Of the 151 antlered bucks the DNR collared near Winter, 74 died during a 2-year monitoring period, for a 51 percent survival rate. Hunters accounted for 32 of the 74 deaths, or 43 percent; while predators combined to kill 19 bucks, 26 percent; and starvation killed nine, 12 percent. Among the predators, wolves killed nine bucks, 12 percent; coyotes killed six, 8 percent; and unknown predators killed four, 5.4 percent.
Storm said a deer’s first year in the Northern forest is a long gauntlet. It faces tough odds against bears and some coyotes during its first month, hunting in some areas during autumn, and then harsh weather during its first winter.
“If they reach their first birthday, the chance of them dying to anything other than a bullet gets fairly low,” Storm said. “Once hunting season arrives, half the forest’s bucks – whether they’re adults or yearlings with their first antlers – get shot. The biggest influences on the North’s deer population are still habitat and winter weather. The data we’re getting from the (Snapshot Wisconsin) trail cameras literally show deer everywhere in those forests.”
In fact, the 6.5-year-old collared buck that fell Nov. 4 appeared on trail-camera photos for four years, according to the bowhunter who shot it. Andrew Gordon, 31, a full-time logger from Winter, has monitored the buck since it appeared in a 2013 photo on land owned by his girlfriend’s father.
The buck appeared on photos in 2014 and 2015, but never during daylight. Then it showed up regularly at a bait site in late afternoon this autumn. Gordon said his girlfriend’s father rifle-hunts the site, but invited him to try bowhunting there in late October. Gordon placed a pop-up blind along the field’s edge Oct. 29, a Saturday, and hunted each afternoon until arrowing it the following Friday.
The buck didn’t appear the first three evenings, but showed up at 4:15 p.m. on Nov. 1.
“When he walked in to eat, all I saw at first was his shadow approaching,” Gordon said. “Once I saw him, he was looking right at me through my window. He never looked away. He presented a perfect shot but never gave me a chance to draw my bow. When he turned to leave, he walked straight away, so I still couldn’t shoot. He came back about an hour later and did the same thing.”
That time Gordon got to full draw. Unfortunately, he was shaking so bad from buck fever that his arrow started rattling. When he extended a finger to stop the noise, he accidentally flipped open a blade on his mechanical broadhead. Rather than risk a shot with a deployed blade, Gordon let down, removed the arrow and nocked another one. He drew his bow when the buck turned to leave, but again it presented only a rear view while departing.
“I’m picky about the shots I take, and the deer I shoot,” Gordon said. “I didn’t shoot a buck from 2012 to 2015 because I always hold out for something big. Things don’t always go the way you want.”
Gordon saw the buck again Nov. 2 but it never got closer than 50 yards. It didn’t show itself Nov. 3. When it reappeared Nov. 4, Gordon experienced an unforgettable hunt.
First, it trotted past at 30 yards while chasing a doe. It returned an hour later to the bait 20 yards away, but ate while quartered toward the blind. It kept an eye on the blind’s window over five minutes. When it finally looked away, Gordon drew his bow and waited for the buck to turn sideways.
“I held at full draw over five minutes,” he said. “I rested the bottom limb on my knee and leaned back to help keep it at full draw. Finally it turned broadside. I lifted the bow off my knee and shot.”
About an hour later, Gordon and his friends tracked and claimed the buck. Its antlers measured 19.5 inches between the main beams, which measured about 26 inches long. The antler bases had 6-inch circumferences, and its longest tines measured 12 inches with 5-inch circumferences. Storm estimated the buck’s live weight at about 275 pounds.
Gordon said the radio collar had lost its antenna and all of its elasticity. Its battery box was also beaten and weathered. The DNR let him keep the collar as a souvenir.