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Outdoor Happenings: The Deer Dilemma

This buck stands out against the snow cover at Willow River State Park near Hudson. Photo courtesy of Mike Reiter

Over the last four decades, animal populations have expanded and contracted depending on how well that particular animal could modify its behavior and meld into an environment that thrives on human interaction. Deer are one of the most successful animals in doing just that. Presently there are more deer in Wisconsin than at any other time in history with the potential to swell its population even farther. They have the capability to live among humans and thrive because of it.

Back in the 40's and early 50's deer were inhabitants of the deep forests and woods. Hunters went to the northwoods to harvest the wily buck. Back when I was a kid in Chippewa Falls, if a deer was even sighted near town, that fact was newsworthy enough to make the local paper. Harvesting a buck of any size was a feat on which one could boast.

At one time the deer population in the southern part of the state was nonexistent. A survey undertaken in 1929 by wardens and sportsmen estimated the total deer population at that time. Twenty-two of the 72 counties in the state were estimated to be devoid of deer. Several southern counties and the "River Block" counties had no deer. This included the present day "Go To Big Buck" counties of Pierce, Pepin, Buffalo, La Crosse and Vernon! St Croix County had a projected deer herd of only 25 while Polk County's herd was calculated to be 100! How things have changed. Now the farmland counties hold the deer while the northern areas are becoming depleted. Good habitat for any animal species is the main limiting factor.

Things began to change in the 60's through the 80's. Deer populations exploded in the farm regions where good feed such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers were in abundance. Deer had very little to fear from man except for a few weeks out of the year when they are pursued for their tasty flesh and that boney growth that protruded from their foreheads. Deer flourish in such an environment.

Deer have very few natural predators. Bear have been known to take fawns in the spring while cougars and wolves are not present in our area. Because of abundant food available, there is little if any winter-kill in this area, unlike that experienced in some areas of northern Wisconsin during periods of extended heavy snow-cover and cold temperatures. Humans are really the only viable means to keep the deer population under control. As urbanization expands across the county, opportunities for harvesting deer by hunting become fewer. In some highly populated areas, instead of using a .30-06 or .30-30 to bring home the venison, people inadvertently use a Ford or Chevy.

Earlier, I prided myself on never hitting a deer with my vehicle. I've come close many times but a week before the 2004 deer gun season, I hit two in a span of four days. There are very few people indeed that have not been involved in deer/vehicle collisions either as the driver or as a passenger.

Several years ago, I put together a year-long analysis of deer/vehicle accidents in St Croix County. It was based on the county accident reports each week in the New Richmond News. Every week I tabulated how many accidents were reported in the county and how many had deer involvement. I also noted the time, location and day of the week those accidents occurred.

Any area in the county can be the scene of a vehicle/deer crash. Deer move normally during the morning and evening hours but accidents can occur anytime. The area surrounding the Willow River State Park near Hudson has a high incidence of deer/car accidents. There are natural corridors leaving the park that are utilized by the deer. Those corridors that cross major highway arteries provide areas of incidence. Natural animal use corridors are also evident in other parts of this area where accidents "hotspots" occur.

November has the most deer related accidents by far. This is probably a result of the deer rut which causes increased deer movement and reduced behavioral inhibitions. The rut is the mating season for the deer. At this time both does and bucks throw "caution to the wind." Bowhunters love the rut for those reasons.

From 5-8 a.m. in the morning and from 5-11 p.m. in the evening accounts for the timing of most of the incidents. This coincides to the deer's natural movements and delineates the time of most vehicular traffic utilizing the roads that cross the corridors within which deer move. In other words, this is the time of day people are going to and coming home from work.

For whatever reason, Fridays accounted for the most deer/vehicle accidents. The number of deer/vehicle crashes is lowest on the weekend then build through the week peaking on Friday. This may be due to traffic patterns and vehicular traffic load. Do people drive faster and with more reckless abandon on Fridays looking forward to the weekend?

Two other peaks were noted in the study. There are slight peaks in deer related accidents in January and again in late April, early May. The first could correlate to the second rut where does that weren't bred in the first rut are being pursued. The April-May peak probably corresponds to the time of year when the does chase the fawns from last year away and give birth to new fawns.

More than 1000 accidents were documented in my study with more than 50 percent being deer related! Many more deer collisions go unreported. This fact adds dearly (sorry for the pun!) to our automobile insurance premiums. High deer density, urbanization and increased vehicular traffic are the three main reasons for the extremely high deer/car incident rate in our area. While the study was documented in 2003, I see no reason why the results wouldn't hold true today.

Too much venison is being wasted on highways and by-ways that could be put to good use after deer/vehicle collisions. The vast majority of vehicle related deer mortalities are left on the side of the road to be picked up by paid individuals for disposal or left to decay in very non-esthetic fashion viewed by every passer-by. These animals are excellent fare if salvaged shortly after being struck. Amazingly, aside from the death of the animal, very little meat is damaged and in most cases the animal is less damaged than if hit by a bullet fired from a high-powered rifle. There is really no difference between those animals being struck by a moving vehicle and the animals that are put down by smaller moving projectiles such as bullets or arrows.

If anyone has the misfortune of hitting a deer or comes upon a deer that has been hit with a vehicle, a simple call to the County Dispatcher will allow you to transport the deer to another location. The call is registered in Madison and a record of the deer is documented with little or no trouble!

Deer are one of State's greatest natural assets. While the badger is Wisconsin's state animal, the white tailed deer is Wisconsin's state wildlife animal. Deer are truly magnificent animals but need to be managed and controlled.