Gun deer license sales lagging; DNR speculates snow, crossbow season are factors

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MADISON, Wisconsin — Wisconsin's gun deer license sales are lagging behind last year's pace with less than a week before the season opens, according to state wildlife officials.

The nine-day season begins Saturday. Department of Natural Resources data shows hunters had purchased 565,663 licenses as of Monday, down 11,175 licenses from the same point last year.

DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said Tuesday during a conference call that deep snow in northern Wisconsin may be giving hunters pause. She also speculated some hunters may have opted to participate in the state's first crossbow season instead. But she stressed hunters often wait until the last minute to purchase licenses.

D.J. LeRoy, a 57-year-old hunter from Sturgeon Bay, said he plans to get his license Friday as he's driving to join friends in Eau Claire County for Opening Day. He said he's too busy in the evenings driving home from his job as a health teacher at Green Bay East High School and making dinner to find time to buy it before then.

"I don't even have my (hunting) stuff out of the garage yet," he said. "I'm sure a lot of people who are retired buy them early. A lot of people who are working wait."

The DNR sold 635,165 licenses for the 2013 hunt, about 350 more than 2012 but still far off the past decade's high-water mark of 649,955 set in 2004.

Republican lawmakers have been trying to re-energize the sport. In 2011 they did away with the earn-a-buck program, which required hunters in areas with dense herds to kill an antlerless deer before taking a buck. That same year Gov. Scott Walker hired a Texas researcher to come up with recommendations on how the DNR can improve deer management.

The DNR has implemented a number of those suggestions, including creating county deer advisory councils, assistance programs and cheaper antlerless tags for landowners looking to control deer on their property. The agency redrew the jigsaw of boundaries for deer management units to follow county lines, too, and has started moving toward electronic registration.

Stepp also has made the gun season a public relations priority. Her administration has reduced license fees from the standard $24 to $5 for first-time buyers, posted a video of her and Walker urging hunters to hit the woods and created a mobile app that offers easy access to regulations and a GPS tracking feature.

Hunters killed 255,003 deer in 2013. DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang said the agency doesn't have any hard projections for this year's kill but predicted the harvest in northern Wisconsin could be down again.

Two harsh winters have thinned the herd in that area. The DNR will allow hunters in 19 northern counties to take only bucks this year to help the herd replenish itself.

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