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WI Deer Research For Landowners

Jennifer Smith

Posted on November 20 2018

DODGEVILLE - A sugary snow frosted the coulees of Iowa County at dawn Saturday, a sweet offering to hunters for the start of the 2018 Wisconsin gun deer hunting season.

"Tracking snow, 30 degrees and not much wind?" said Mark Schack, 59, of Tomah, one of my hunting partners for the day. "We'll take it every time."

The conditions were icing on the blaze orange cake, since we were already in the whitetail-rich southern farmland region of Wisconsin. 

Last fall, the Department of Natural Resources estimated 34 deer per square mile in Iowa County.

No, it's not rare to see deer here. But what makes this area outside of Dodgeville unique is its population of GPS-collared animals.

Nowhere in the state is there a greater chance to encounter a whitetail, coyote or bobcat wearing a high-tech necklace.

The animals are collared as part of the DNR's Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer and Predator Study.

Started in 2017, the project is examining factors that could impact deer survival and deer population growth in southern Wisconsin, including chronic wasting disease, predation, habitat suitability and hunter harvest.

The work, already lauded by many in the wildlife management community as "world class," is expected to cost $3 million and run for five years. 

But it wouldn't have been able to get off square one without an essential and unquantifiable local assist: access to private lands. Virtually all the property in both the east and west study areas are in private ownership.

My hosts for the 2018 gun deer hunting opener – Kent and Amy Kramer of Dodgeville – are among the 313 landowners who've granted DNR crews permission to conduct research activities on their properties. I joined Kent Kramer's hunting crew at his residence and spread out on the two parcels the family owns (83 and 53 acres). 

For Kramer, who grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Cobb, hunting is a family affair. Our hunting party featured Kramer's son, Will, 17, as well as Mark Schack (Kramer's brother-in-law) and Matthew Schack, 26, of Fitchberg (Mark's son and Kramer's nephew).

Kent Kramer, an emergency room physician, was on duty Saturday and unable to hunt until the second or third day of the season. But he was excited to have the crew at his place for another gun opener.

"I spend most of my deer hunting time with a bow in my hand, and I really enjoy that," said Kramer, 45. "But the gun opener is great for collegiality and a chance to get all of us together."

I hunted from a tree stand at the edge of a field enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Dried stalks of big bluestem wore bonnets of fresh snow and danced in a soft north breeze. To my south was a heavily wooded draw.

As I walked in at 6:15 a.m., at least four deer bounded out of the prairie grass and headed north.

Did one wear a GPS collar? It was too dark to tell.

Over the last two years, Kramer has hosted DNR crews and volunteers for fawn searches in late spring and early summer and adult and juvenile deer captures in winter. The researchers have found good success for the larger deer with a drop net on Kramer's land.

Some people might consider such activity an intrusion of privacy. Why do the Kramers participate in the project?

The answer boils down to science.

About 50 percent of adult bucks in parts of Iowa County are CWD-positive, among the highest prevalence rates observed in wild deer. While no one thinks that's a good thing, no one knows exactly what it means for whitetails in some of the richest deer habitat on Earth.

Kramer, who purchased his property 18 years ago, said he's noticed two changes over about the last 8 years.

He's now finding dead deer with increasing frequency, including two in 2016 and three in 2017. And he's noticed a decline in the number of large, old deer.

"I've been talking with neighbors and others and wondering, 'Where are all those old deer going?'" Kramer said.

Kramer said he decided to allow the DNR access to his property for the deer study to help them do the best possible science.

"My opinion on what might be happening is just that, an opinion," Kramer said. "I want to help them get the data necessary to make science-based conclusions."

The idea of allowing DNR access to property isn't universally embraced, of course.

And here, near ground zero of the Wisconsin CWD outbreak, there are some who still bear hard feelings over the agency's efforts in 2002 to about 2005 to eradicate the disease through high deer harvests, including sharpshooters.

Kramer said most of his neighbors, when hearing he's participating in the study, say "that's awesome." But a few are "uh, uh."

Kramer knows there won't ever be unanimous support for it, but he strives to keep doors and minds open.

One issue emerged regarding collared deer. A neighbor wondered: Should they be shot? Or protected? And is the study just making some deer off limits to hunters?

Everyone in the area now knows the collared deer should be treated like all other deer. If it's a deer you'd normally try to harvest, go for it. If not, don't.

As a participant in the study, Kramer gets information on animals collared on his property. One deer traveled from his land about five miles east to Gov. Dodge State Park where it was harvested.

As of Friday, 328 deer, 50 coyotes and 29 bobcats have been collared in the project. About 250 deer are still "on the air," said Dan Storm, DNR deer and elk research scientist and project leader.

Funding for the project comes from Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, also known as Pittman-Roberston, an excise tax on hunting and shooting equipment.

As of this week, 20 field staff, mostly seasonal employees, were working on the project. Slightly more than 300 volunteers assisted in 2018 with field work, Storm said.

"The only way this project can succeed is with the support of the public and landowners," Storm said.

A steady stream of rifle reports reverberated through the coulees over the first hour of light. It was good to know hunters were out and attempting to take deer.

About 8 a.m. the snow tapered off. Patches of blue began punching holes in the woolen, grey sky.

At 8:30, a lone doe sneaked behind me and disappeared into the draw. I saw only the top of its back and ears.

Mark Schack saw a large doe with twin fawns but elected not to shoot. Matthew Schack saw 10 does and a fork-horn buck, but also refrained from firing.

About 10:30 we gathered to share stories and grab a bowl of Mark Schack's homemade chicken noodle soup. 

The temperature remained mild, about 30, and the wind was low. A cloud cover moved back in by mid-afternoon.We all agreed, the deer would be moving this afternoon. It was time to get back in the stands.

It was a privilege to hunt on land owned by people who leverage their claim for a broader benefit.

"It's all of ours," Kramer said of the land. "I'm just trying to take care of this piece for a snapshot in time."

Story re-posted from Journal Sentinel. Written by Paul Smith.