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Sights like this were rarer than usual in Wisconsin’s recently completed nine-day gun deer season, when hunters killed 25 percent fewer deer than the previous year.

The calendar and the weather combined to spare tens of thousands of deer during Wisconsin’s recently concluded nine-day gun deer hunting season.

State Department of Natural Resources officials said a later Thanksgiving week and several days of nasty conditions contributed to a 25% decline from last year in the number of deer killed in the gun season.

Wisconsin hunters killed 160,769 deer during the state’s 168th nine-day gun season that concluded Dec. 1. That total is down more than 53,000 from the 213,972 deer registered in the same span a year ago, according to preliminary statistics released Dec. 3 by the DNR.

The total included 75,236 bucks, down 29% from last year, and 85,533 antlerless deer, down 21%.

While opening weekend saw mild temperatures throughout Wisconsin with some snow in the north, hunting conditions deteriorated throughout the remainder of the season, with strong wind, snow and rain moving across the state. The largest dip in buck registrations — 40% — occurred in the northern forest zone, where blizzard-like conditions and significant snow accumulation hindered hunter access.

“Snow always helps hunters, but when it’s heavy and wet and you have winds of 40 mph and the snow is coming down sideways, that makes for some pretty tough hunting conditions,” said Kris Johansen, natural resources program manager for the DNR’s west-central district. “I give a lot of credit to the hunters who were out there.”

Wisconsin held the earliest possible deer season in 2018 followed this year by the latest possible season opener. When that pattern occurred between the 2012 and 2013 seasons and the 2007 and 2008 seasons, similar declines in year-to-year registration totals were recorded, as the shift in dates results in a decrease in rut activity during the gun season.

Kevin Wallenfang, a big game ecologist with the DNR’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, blamed the lousy weather for the drop exceeding the 15% to 20% normally seen when the season shifts from earliest to latest.

“The word out in the field is that there was very little hunting activity over the last weekend of the gun season,” Wallenfang said.

DNR officials also pointed to a higher than usual prevalence of standing corn as a factor in the registration decline. By Sunday, the corn harvest was only 66% complete, which is 22 days behind last year’s pace.

“When the corn harvest is behind, that generally makes for challenging conditions, as it provides a whole lot of opportunity for deer to hide and more areas where hunters can’t move around or see into,” Johansen said.

Reports from hunters around Wisconsin indicated low daytime deer activity throughout the gun season.

The number of deer hunters, meanwhile, remained fairly steady, with gun license sales totaling 564,664 this year, off 2% from 576,277 in 2018. The DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement reported four firearm-involved injuries and zero fatalities for the nine-day season, down from a 10-year average of 6.8 incidents.

Wallenfang said the DNR likely will adjust antlerless deer quotas next year in response to this year’s lower-than-expected kill total.

No data is available yet for chronic wasting disease testing on deer killed during the gun season.

While Johansen understands that it’s disappointing for hunters who really wanted to shoot a deer last week but didn’t get the chance, he said there is a potential bright side for those forced to wait until next fall.

“We harvested fewer bucks this year than last year, so that means a number of those animals will probably survive and grow even bigger antlers next year,” he said.

Still, both Johansen and Wallenfang emphasized that the addition of several special hunts, combined with the increasing popularity of bow hunting, means the nine-day gun season accounts for a smaller share of the total deer kill than it did historically. Still to come this month are a muzzleloader season, a pair of special antlerless hunts and the remainder of the archery and crossbow seasons.

“There’s lots of opportunity left to hunt for deer this year,” Wallenfang said, “and we hope people get out and enjoy it.”

Hunting incidents

The DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement reported four firearm-involved injuries, all during opening weekend, and zero fatalities for the entire 2019 nine-day gun deer season.

Three of the four incidents occurred on opening day, Nov. 23, in Oneida, Marathon and Fond du Lac counties. In Oneida County, a 38-year-old man suffered a self-inflicted firearm-related injury, striking his left foot; in Marathon County, a 29-year-old woman suffered a self-inflicted firearm-related injury, striking her left foot; and in Fond du Lac County, a hunter shooting toward a running deer struck a 19-year-old woman who was a member of his same hunting group in the left hand.

The fourth weekend incident occurred in Washburn County on Nov. 24, when a 31-year-old man was struck by a single bullet from a hunter in a different hunting group. The shooter has been identified. The investigation continues, and no additional details were released as of Dec. 3.

Wisconsin’s 10-year average for hunting incidents during the nine-day gun deer season is 6.8. The decline in incidents is the direct result of hunter safety education given by Wisconsin’s volunteer instructors and conservation wardens, according to the DNR.

“This is the fourth consecutive nine-day deer gun season without a fatality,” said DNR Chief Conservation Warden Todd Schaller. “Four incidents are tied with the lowest on record. This is certainly a tribute to our hunters and volunteer safety education instructors.”

The Country Today contributed to this report.