Wisconsin deer hunting history is as important as the state’s history with the Green Bay Packers or cheese. Here are some highlights of the past 165 years.
The Wisconsin deer hunting tradition is long and colorful. Over the years, many stories have told of big whitetail deer and legendary hunts, and while multiple books have been written on the subject.
Hunting methods, regulations, clothing and equipment, and even a few traditions have changed over the last century-and-a-half since deer hunting in Wisconsin became codified and regulated by law.
The following is a sampling of some of the more notable deer hunting regulation changes and statistics over the past 165 years, as provided by the Wisconsin DNR.
1851 marked the first year of an actual calendared season for deer hunting, although First Nations people were exempt from seasonal restrictions. The open season ran from July through March, and closed from February 1 to June 30. There was no bag limit on deer.
Four game warden positions were created by legislation in 1887, and Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk hired two wardens to oversee the state at a salary of $50 each per month.
In 1888, the first game laws pamphlet was published.
1897 saw the first bag limit for deer, set at two per season. A resident deer hunting license cost $1, nonresident licenses $30, with an estimated total license sales of about 12,000.
In 1914, 24 hunters were killed and 26 injured. License sales climbed to 155,000.
1915 was the first buck-only season. Two years later, in 1917, paper deer tags were required for the first time at a cost: 10 cents.
The registered deer kill in 1919 was 25,152 animals. Keep that number in mind as we get into the 1990s and early 2000s.
In 1920, the state replaced the paper deer tags it had instituted only two years prior, with metal tags. These too cost 10 cents, and are highly collectable today, selling for anywhere from $10 to $100 each, depending on the year of issue.
1934 saw the state’s first modern bowhunting deer season. The archer pictured below is of Roy Case, considered by those in the know to be the “father” of Wisconsin bowhunting”.
1942 was the first year that deer hunters were required to wear back tags while deer hunting.
In 1962, with gray wolves now considered extinct in the state, the deer population jumps to over 400,000 animals. The state is also divided into deer management unit with specific population goals.
The following decades see frequent changes to harvest quotas per specific management units, including instituting party permits in eight management units in 1962. The next year, 1964, party permit management units increase to 32 as the deer population continues to climb.
The Hunter Safety Education Program starts in 1967. The Hunter Safety Course becomes a significant nationwide institution, with hundreds of thousands of young hunters taking the courses across the country. While hunting accidents still occur during many seasons, firearm fatalities tend to be lower overall than in years past. No hunting fatalities occurred in 1973.
In an effort to further increase hunter safety and lower fatalities, blaze orange clothing was required by law in 1980. Interestingly, wolves began to reappear in Wisconsin around 1975. Five packs with a total of 25 wolves were documented in 1980. The state decided to assist with their natural recovery by closing the 1980 coyote season in the northern part of the state, at least partly to avoid wolf kills inaccurately identified as coyotes.
The 1980s see record deer harvests for several consecutive years, with 1989 registering 310,192 deer. That record would be eclipsed in 1990 with 350,040 whitetails taken during the gun season.
License sales in 1990 also set a record at 699,275 licenses sold. in 1989 only two fatalities occurred, although there were 37 firearm injuries recorded.
The state’s deer herd in 1990 was estimated to be an astonishing 1.3 million animals, compelling the state to extend the season for another week in order to whittle down the population. Bowhunters also took 49,291 deer that year, and 69,097 deer the following year in 1991.
The rest of the 1990s are record-setting years. The gun harvest reaches 398,002 in 1995, but is eclipsed at the end of the decade to 402,204 deer registered in 1999. Bowhunting totals also set records, with archers taking 69,260 deer in 1995 and 92,203 in 1999.
The year 2000 gun deer season harvest set an all-time record at 528,494 animals. Remember that 1919 figure of 25,152 registed animals? 694,712 licensed hunters – the second highest total in state history – experienced a 76% success rate in the year 2000. The DNR indicates that “By comparison, in the 43 years from 1966 to 2009, the average success rate for gun hunters is 37 percent”.
Things begin to get a little chaotic and uncertain following the amazing 2000 deer season. In 2001, three deer harvested in Dane County were found to be afflicted with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD). But while 2001 gun and archery harvests drop, they are still in the top five record years.
Succeeding years see the state focused on trying to contain and deal with the growing threat of CWD. License sales make a brief dip as the concern about CWD grows.
In spite of CWD concerns, bowhunters take a record 95,607 deer in 2003. Gun deer license sales also increase again, hitting up 644,818 licenses sold in 2002, in spite of 115 deer testing positive for CWD in southwest Wisconsin. The hunting public is becoming educated about the threat of CWD and the fears of deer to human transfer may be lessening.
In 2004, hunters donate a half-million pounds of venison – 10,938 deer – to Wisconsin food pantries and in-need families. Wisconsin deer hunters have had a long history of selflessly sharing their harvest. This tradition continues to this day and is a testament to the benefit of hunting and the overall “goodness” of the hunting community. Bowhunters also set yet a new harvest record in 2004 at 103,572 deer.
Further proof that hunting and hunters are the conservation force in America is evidenced by hundreds of hunters volunteering for a 2011 state wildlife research project to study the causes of deer mortality in the state. The program is considered a success in large part because of the volunteer participation of hunters.
2015 might also be considered the year that Wisconsin officially entered the modern technological age, by allowing hunters to register harvested deer by telephone or computer. What’s next, computer chip deer tags?