SUPERIOR, Wis. -- Al Horvath retired a few years ago, but it hasn’t exactly been a time of afternoon naps and rocking chairs.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as busy as I have been this year,’’ Horvath said.
Horvath, 72, is chairman of the Douglas County Deer Advisory Committee. That’s the 10-member volunteer group that helps set the framework for the upcoming deer season, with input from Department of Natural Resources biologists and the public and ultimate approval by the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board.
It’s the county committee — comprised of hunters, foresters, tourism officials and other community members — that since 2012 has provided the public input that’s then plugged into a science and mathematical process to set deer management in each part of the state each year. Horvath has headed the Douglas County committee since it started.
“It's science-based, science-driven, but it has this grass-roots element as well,’’ Horvath noted.
Horvath is also co-chair of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress’ Deer and Elk Advisory Committee, and he serves on the statewide Wisconsin Deer Advisory Council that is helping plot the state’s long-term deer management strategy for the future.
“I’ve been doing a lot of the virtual meetings this year” of COVID-19, said Horvath, who lives in Superior and is retired from Kimberly-Clark Corp.
Horvath is spending hundreds of hours annually volunteering to help keep Wisconsin’s storied deer hunting tradition alive and well. He’s alternately enthused and concerned.
“I worry that we are losing that tradition,’’ Horvath said, noting not just a downward trend in the number of deer hunters in recent years but also seemingly less-enthused, less-committed, less satisfied hunters who remain.
“We drive by a lot of deer camps now and, by the third day (of deer season) they are empty, not a car or truck around. The meat poles are empty,’’ Horvath added.
Nearly 60 years of deer hunting
Horvath was born and raised in Superior, went into the service and lived for a time in the Twin Cities before moving back home for good. He’s been deer hunting since 1962 and has a deer camp west of Gordon since 1975, first located along the St. Croix River and, when they lost the land lease for that in 2000, built a new camp in 2001 on 83 acres in the woods nearby.
At times there have been as many as 16 people hunting out of the camp, he noted. This season that will be down to two. Two more guys dropped out this year, choosing to hunt in west-central Wisconsin’s agricultural areas where deer are far more numerous.
While Horvath agrees that success shouldn’t be the only measure of a deer hunt, or even the most important measure, he does think northern Wisconsin hunters need to see and shoot more deer to keep them engaged. The committee’s official goal for the Douglas County buck harvest is 3,500 annually, about the average over the past 30 years. But that hasn’t happened since 2007, when hunters shot 4,429 bucks. The buck harvest dropped to 2,900 in 2008 and has remained below the 3,500 goal ever since.
Last year hunters took only 2,282 bucks in the county, in part because of heavy snows during the season that limited hunter access. There was already a foot of snow on the ground in some areas by opening day and more than two feet by Thanksgiving weekend. But there were also lower deer numbers in some areas. As recently as 2010, hunters shot 7,616 deer of all types in Douglas County. By 2019 that dropped by more than half, to 2,999.
Some 55% of hunters who responded to a survey said they are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the number of deer in Douglas County. But Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife manager based in Brule, said the satisfaction needle is hard to move.
“That hunter satisfaction level has always been low. Even in our best years, it’s less than half,’’ Kessler said, noting the highest satisfaction levels appeared to come in the 1980s as deer numbers rebounded from harsh winter lows in the 60s and 70s. “Hunters in the 80s were happy because of what they went through in the 60s and 70s ... We're higher (deer harvest) than the 80s most years now and hunters still say they aren't satisfied."
The declining number of deer shot and of hunters isn’t unique to northwestern Wisconsin. Statewide, Wisconsin hunters killed 518,484 deer in all seasons in 2007. By 2018 that dropped to 336,464 and last year it dropped to 291,023. The number of all types of hunters (deer, small game, waterfowl, etc.) in Wisconsin peaked at 784,000 in 1995, according to data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. That number dropped to 680,733 in 2019 — 100,000 fewer hunters over the past 25 years, many of them older Baby Boomers aging out of the sport.
“I’m frustrated that we aren’t farther along in rebuilding the deer herd,’’ Horvath said, noting a combination of wolves and tough winters have worked to keep deer numbers down since the Polar Vortex winter of 2013-2014. “We’re on the northern edge of deer range in the U.S. and that’s what gives us the big fluctuations in deer populations, the winters.”
But hunters also play a role, and Horvath said that, at least in some areas, is based on how many antlerless deer they shoot. For the last two years, the Douglas County Deer Advisory Committee has proposed no general public antlerless permits be available to reduce the harvest and regrow the herd. But many hunters, especially those who hunt on private land in the eastern half of the county, demanded the chance to shoot some does, so several hundred permits were issued.
“When you have some hunters who want to shoot just big bucks, and others that want meat for the table, it’s hard to please everyone,’’ Horvath noted.
Kessler said Horvath negotiates a difficult position well.
“Al should get a lot of credit for making this committee work pretty well, better than what we hear from a lot of other counties,'’ Kessler said. “Not everyone agrees on what makes a good deer hunt. And that causes Al a lot of concern. But he’s managed to keep it a cordial discussion, where everyone can get along even if they don’t get exactly what they want.”
That disagreement is one reason Horvath would like to see the county divided into three deer management units, to follow the unique ecosystems in the county — sand barrens with pine and oaks, lowland spruce bogs and upland clay soils where agriculture and aspen prevail — and not the artificial lines of county borders.
“We really have three ecologically different areas and maybe should manage deer that way,’’ he noted.
Horvath concedes that many hunters became spoiled with high deer numbers in the 1990s and early 2000s that came after a string of mild winters. There were probably too many deer then — damaging forests, eating crops and causing wrecks on highways — and hunters may need to adjust their expectations away from that era.
“We still kill way more deer in a bad year now than we ever did back in a good year in the 60s,’’ Horvath said. “A lot of people forget that.”
“How do we get people to view it as a quality hunt without having to throw a big buck in the back of their truck every year?’’ he said. “If that’s the goal, I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Pay it forward
Horvath has been battling some personal health issues, including some heart problems and knee replacements.
“I can’t do the things I’ve always done,’’ he conceded, noting he sometimes left camp hours before sunrise to walk to distant deer stands far into the woods.
But he still will be out there this season and hopes to bring his 9-year-old grandson into the Wisconsin hunting tradition.
“That’s my goal, is to keep that tradition alive for him. At least give him the opportunity to experience it and stay with it, if that’s what he wants,’’ Horvath said. “We’re losing that tradition of young people being mentored at deer camps.”
In addition to lower deer and hunter numbers, Horvath is worried about the spread of chronic wasting disease. He thinks feeding and baiting deer has helped spread CWD faster.
“When you bring deer together, the studies show disease can really spread fast,’’ he noted.
But, despite all the concerns with the northern deer hunting situation, Horvath remains mostly optimistic.
“It’s got to be about more than just shooting a deer. If that’s the only time you are happy, you are only going to be happy for a few seconds after the shot,’’ Horvath said. “You have to appreciate the land, the atmosphere of the deer camp, the tradition … appreciate a beautiful day or the birds you see. A lot of good can happen in the woods other than killing a deer.”
Wisconsin firearms deer season 2020
Wisconsin’s traditional 9-day firearms deer hunting season runs Saturday, Nov. 21 through Sunday, Nov. 29.
An estimated 580,000 hunters are expected to take part.
Two more seasons are up next, with muzzleloader running Nov. 20 to Dec. 9 and a 4-day statewide antlerless season Dec. 10-13 (Hunters must have a valid, unfilled antlerless deer tag to shoot a deer during the antlerless season.)
Buy your license at: gowild.wi.gov or a list of places to buy your license in person at dnr.wi.gov/Permits/CSRSP/LicenseAgents.aspx
Register your deer at gowild.wi.gov/wildlife/harvest, by phone at 844-426-3734 or in participating stores. For a list go to dnr.wi.gov/wmcwd/RegStation/Search.
Deer baiting and feeding are currently banned in Burnett and Washburn counties due to CWD restrictions.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, 160,569 deer were registered during the 2019 gun deer season. That is a 24.9 percent drop compared to 2018 when 213,972 deer harvested.
2020 license fees
- Resident firearms license: $24
- Resident ages 12-17: $20
- Residents age 11 and under: $7
- First time deer license purchase: $5
- Nonresident firearms deer license: $160
- Nonresident first-time deer license purchase: $79.75
- Nonresident age 11 and under: $7
- Nonresident student license: $24
How to have your deer sampled for CWD
Hunters anywhere in Wisconsin can have their deer sampled for chronic wasting disease, either at a self-service kiosk or through your local wildlife biologist. Testing through the DNR is free for deer harvested in Wisconsin. Testing is also available for a fee through some private veterinarians.
“It’s voluntary, but we really would like to get more deer heads for testing in the northern counties,’’ said Greg Kessler, DNR wildlife manager in Brule.
Results will be available 2-3 weeks after the deer head or tissue sample is received. Unforeseen circumstances may cause further delays in either field operations or at the CWD processing center.
There are self-service CWD kiosks at the Bait Box bait shop in Superior; the Brule DNR Ranger Station; Timber Ghost Taxidermy in Iron River; the Bayfield DNR Ranger Station; the Ashland DNR headquarters; the Mellen DNR Ranger Station; and the Minong DNR Ranger Station. For a complete list of CWD sampling locations go to dnr.wi.gov/wmcwd/RegStation/Search.