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Hundreds of thousands of hunters are expected to be stalking deer, such as this 10-point buck in the town of Seymour, when Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer season begins Saturday. 

EAU CLAIRE — Conditions are primed for a successful hunt for hundreds of thousands of hunters preparing to head into the woods and meadows for Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer season.

That's the assessment of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials in advance of the state's iconic deer season kicking off this Saturday and running through the following weekend.

"The table should be set for hunters to have a good opening weekend," said Kris Johansen, regional wildlife management supervisor for the DNR. "That's good because the gun deer season is an activity that stands alone among big events in Wisconsin. Other than Christmas morning and the Packers playing in the Super Bowl, nothing quite rivals the gun deer season."

DNR area wildlife supervisor Jess Carstens agreed that signs point to a strong season, which he said is good news for all of those hunters who have been looking forward to what is "practically a nine-day holiday" in Wisconsin.

Johansen and Carstens pointed to several factors as evidence for their optimism:

• Deer numbers are trending upward in much of the state.

• The state experienced a mild winter and good conditions in spring and summer, which usually leads to better fawn numbers and antler growth. "People have been shooting some really big-antlered deer in archery season," Johansen said.

• It’s been a relatively dry year and the crop harvest is on or ahead of schedule, making it less likely than some years that deer will be hiding in cornfields.

• The weather forcast for opening weekend, when about 50% of the nine-day season's deer kill usually occurs, looks pretty cooperative. While snow cover would be ideal to help with tracking and spotting animals, predicted regional high temperatures in the 30s and 40s should be mild enough not to discourage hunters from staying outside and yet not too warm or cold to hamper deer movement.

• With the season starting earlier this year than the past two years (it is always bookended by the weekends before and after Thanksgiving), that means it could overlap with the final days of the rut in which deer are actively moving around in search of breeding opportunities.

"Everything is really setting up well for what should be a very good opening weekend," Carstens said.

DNR Wildlife Management Bureau director Eric Lobner said the gun deer season is an exciting event for many people statewide, pointing out recently that nearly a half-million people participated in the nine-day hunt last year in Wisconsin.

"Hunting is part of the cultural fabric of Wisconsin, and we look forward to another memorable gun deer season that also provides an economic boost to many parts of the state," Lobner said in a statement.

In addition to doing a healthy activity they enjoy, getting outside and gathering with friends and relatives at deer camps, Johansen said the "cherry on the top" for many hunters is that they have the opportunity to collect low-fat venison that they can put in the freezer and feed their families throughout the year.

DNR officials did, however, offer some cautionary advice about chronic wasting disease and COVID-19.

CWD

State wildlife officials are once again urging hunters to get the deer they kill tested for CWD.

By having deer tested, hunters provide the raw data needed to understand where the fatal, infectious disease exists and its prevalence on the landscape, Carstens said.

CWD is a neurological disease of deer, elk and moose that was first detected in five southern Wisconsin counties in 2002.

Since then, it has affected 60 of the state’s 72 counties, according to the DNR. To date, more than 8,400 free-ranging white-tailed deer have tested positive for CWD in the state.

While the agency indicated CWD sampling is useful across the state, it is particularly important in parts of the state where the disease already has been detected. That includes a surveillance area composed of five towns in rural Eau Claire, Dunn and Pepin counties where 14 wild deer have tested positive over the past four years, including two this fall, Carstens said.

"It's important for people to recognize that we do have CWD in this area," Carstens said, referring to the Chippewa Valley surveillance area comprised of the Eau Claire County towns of Drammen, Pleasant Valley and Brunswick, the Dunn County town of Rock Creek and the Pepin County town of Albany.

Hunters should give strong consideration to getting their deer tested before they eat the venison, he added.

Research has shown that CWD, once it reaches a certain level, can cause a long-term decline in the deer population.

Carstens encouraged hunters to take advantage of the free CWD testing available at self-service kiosks open around the clock or through meat processors, taxidermists and other businesses that have contracted with the state to collect samples. At-home testing kits also are available.

Once hunters have finished processing their deer, the DNR advises them to safely dispose of the carcasses in designated deer carcass dumpsters around the state. When that is impossible, the carcasses should be buried near where they were killed so as not to spread any infected prions to new areas, Carstens said.

COVID-19

Even deer hunting can't completely escape the coronavirus pandemic that has affected so many aspects of life over the last year and a half, DNR officials said.

While the activity is generally safe because it is conducted outdoors and naturally offers distancing from other people, hunters can be at risk when they gather indoors at deer camps or local restaurants and bars and should consider wearing masks and social distancing in those situations, Carstens said.

"Be cognizant of your social interactions throughout the season," he advised. "Remember that COVID is still out there and with Thanksgiving right around the corner, hopefully we don't have people getting infected at deer camp and then passing it along to relatives at Thanksgiving dinner."

Recent studies also have shown that deer can be carriers of the coronavirus, with the virus detected in a third of deer tested in Iowa.

"We are aware that COVID has been found in free-ranging white-tailed deer," Johansen said. "However, there is no evidence that COVID in deer can be transmitted to people through handling or consuming deer."

As a precaution and because information is extremely limited about potential risks to humans from infected animals, the state Department of Health Services has updated its safety guidance for hunters to include wearing rubber or disposable gloves and even wearing a mask while field dressing a deer.