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Wisconsin Hopes “Dr. Deer” Will Improve its Deer Program

by Patrick Durkin 19. October 2011 14:29
Patrick Durkin

Folks around the Midwest are asking what to think of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s choice of Texas professor James C. Kroll as the Dairy State’s “deer trustee.”

Picture this: If you took Wisconsin’s most traditional deer biologist, Keith McCaffery of Rhinelander, handcuffed him to Kroll and hung them from a branch like tomcats bound by their tails, the caterwaul wouldn’t cease till one bled dry.

Dr. James C. Kroll of Stephen F. Austin University has been named as Wisconsin's "Deer Trustee."

So, don’t expect this latest theater of Wisconsin’s decades-old deer war to end with hugs, handshakes and hard-fought admiration. Will Kroll improve the state’s deer program? Well, his review can’t fare much worse than previous assessments by the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau, and expert panels of agency and university biologists from outside Wisconsin.

All those findings more supported than criticized the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. But, fair or not, the public ignored each probe as just another internal investigation designed to absolve.

The current review is already more intriguing. For instance, even though the governor’s Department of Administration hired Kroll, the DNR must pay his $125,000 fee. Given that DNR biologists typically view Kroll as a deer heretic, even Judas, that’s like funding your own firing squad.

Dr. James C. Kroll, left, is shown here with Wayne Sitton (far right), manager of Michigan’s Turtle Lake Hunting Club; and biologist John Varnel, a graduate of Stephen F. Austin State University’s wildlife-management program.

By any definition, Kroll is a maverick among deer biologists. He has published few peer-reviewed academic studies on deer, and he does not belong to The Wildlife Society, a professional community of scientists, managers and educators who study, manage and conserve wildlife and habitats.

Instead, Kroll “went commercial,” focusing his research and educational efforts on the hunting market, primarily through “North American Whitetail” magazine and television. His moniker is “Dr. Deer,” he appears regularly on national TV, he talks at deer expos, and he writes books and magazine articles.

Academicians and agency biologists typically dismiss such work as “the popular press,” sniffing and tilting their nose for emphasis. Consider this scene in late September at the Midwest Deer & Wild Turkey Group meeting in Roscommon, Mich.: When a speaker announced Wisconsin would name Kroll its “deer trustee,” a collective groan, followed by laughter, swept the room.

Talk about “Mean Girls.” Among themselves, they say Kroll personifies what’s wrong with deer management in Texas, a state where “corn” is both noun and verb, as in, “We corn our deer with time-activated feeders.” Kroll also backs private ownership of deer in game farms, supports breeding experiments to grow big antlers, and defends “high-fencing” land to manage and hunt the deer inside.

And it’s not like Kroll enhanced his reputation by being the Walker administration’s choice as deer trustee. The guv was never a hunter until playing one on the 2010 campaign trail, and in announcing the appointment, the DOA dubbed Kroll “the world’s foremost expert in modern deer herd management.”

Such hyperbole might work for TV or live audiences, but the scientific community finds it showy, unbecoming and self-important.

But you know what? No one accuses Kroll of stupidity. And as Gov. Walker appointments go, Kroll is far more qualified for his task than DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp was for hers, or Natural Resources Board member Greg Kazmierski was for his.

Only fools underestimate Kroll. If you put him on a dais with “respectable” biologists to debate deer behavior, deer hunting and deer management, most hunters would probably vote him the winner by the end.

Why? Kroll knows how to communicate, and most biologists and researchers don’t. Is he an arrogant, ego-driven showman with a strong personality? Maybe, but who’d you expect to take this job, Sweet Polly Purebred?

Kroll is in a unique position to push Wisconsin deer management forward, but he needs DNR biologists’ help. As soon as possible, he must share his review plans with them, and dismiss the “deer czar” nickname he inherited. He’s running a 6-month analysis, not a country.

And he’s not doing it alone. He’s assembling a team that includes Dr. David Guynn, professor emeritus of Clemson University’s department of forestry and natural resources; and Dr. Gary Alt, who ran Pennsylvania’s deer program 5.5 years during the late 1990s.

Granted, many folks criticize Kroll’s $125,000 fee, but let’s not forget the Wisconsin DNR spent $1.2 million a decade ago on “Deer 2000 and Beyond.” That effort attracted thousands of citizens to work with the DNR in crafting a long-term deer-management strategy.

Where is it now? The DNR apparently slid the plan into a briefcase, forgot it atop the car and lost it on the Interstate. Talk about squandering public money, effort and trust.

Given that and other DNR deer-leadership failings, no one should act offended by Kroll’s presence.

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