Deer Hunting Conspiracy Theories

An email arrived a few days after Wisconsin’s gun-deer season last fall, asking if it’s true that people were filing phony deer-kill registrations to boost my home county’s harvest numbers. Say what?

Deer Hunting Conspiracy Theories

No deer-registration system is immune from claims of fraud and abuse.

Why would anyone do that? Well, “everyone” knows the Department of Natural Resources issued too many “doe tags,” right? If hunters make it seem they shot more deer than expected, the DNR won’t issue so many antlerless tags in 2017.

Sigh.

Here we go again. Get out your tinfoil hats and tune in IKOD (I’m Kooky Over Deer) Radio for deer hunting’s latest rumors, buck pellets and deer-hunting conspiracy theories.

Why discount this rumor by reflex? Call me jaded, but I’ve been covering deer seasons since 1982. I’ve lost count of all the childish, ridiculous tales and accusations swirling around our nation’s No. 1 hunting activity.

Realize, too, that my 35 years of experience make me a relative newcomer to this hot air. The late, great outdoor writer Don Johnson of the Milwaukee Sentinel conducted his own audit of the Wisconsin DNR’s deer-registration system in the 1960s in hopes of silencing similar silliness.

It did little long-term good. After the November 1983 gun season, Johnson recounted the lessons of his audit when the gun-kill neared 200,000 for the first time. Hunters screamed “registration fraud,” and claimed we couldn’t possibly kill so many deer. Of course, when Wisconsin flirts with a 200,000 gun-deer kill these days, folks demand more deer and attack the DNR for alleged sins from the Clinton years.

But to be fair to my hometown reader, I checked some numbers. The county’s overall gun-kill during November’s nine-day season increased 7 percent from 6,861 in 2015 to 7,328 in 2016. Further, the buck kill increased 2 percent (3,039 to 3,095) and the antlerless kill 11 percent (3,822 to 4,233).

To ensure it wasn’t a one-year fluke, I checked the totals for 2014, the final year of in-person deer registration. The buck kill was 3,063, the antlerless kill was 4,158 and the total was 7,241. In other words, the county’s 2016 kills with e-registration differed little from its 2014 kills with in-person registration, specifically, 1 percent higher for bucks, 1.8 percent higher for antlerless deer, and 1.2 percent higher overall.

With such scant evidence of registration rigging or deer-harvest fraud, my county has no reason to conduct a recount.

But we’re just warming up. Deer season’s truly head-shaking news came from the Wisconsin’s “Northern Forest Zone.” The gun-season kill in the North was 32,400, up 27 percent from 25,444 during the November 2015 season; including a 30 percent jump in the buck kill, from 18,048 to 23,445.

Boom! The Tinfoil-Hat Club claimed widespread phony registrations, as well as rampant illegal registration of does and fawns as bucks. But why would thousands of folks risk fines for perpetrating such fraud? Because they hate the DNR and want to mess up its calculations.

Hmm. Right. An unknown person or group somehow got about 5,400 hunters across the Northwoods to call in or go online to make false or illegal deer registrations from Nov. 19 to Nov. 28. And yet no one leaked a credible lead about it to the media or DNR wardens.

Deer Hunting Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories abound in deer hunting’s past and present.

OK, well, maybe the Russians hacked the DNR’s computers and changed the harvest totals. Conspiracy theorists can explain away anything.

Rather than properly disregard this bunkum as just another myth in deer hunting history, state Sen. Tom “Tinfoil Hat” Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, took to Facebook to pander to his voters. Tiffany shared a newspaper article with a headline that mischaracterized the DNR as being “happy” about increased deer numbers in the North. He asked followers if they were happy, too, even though the actual word the agency used was “encouraging.”

Tiffany’s trolling landed the standard irrelevant, emotional claims we expect in deer-hunting circles: There’s no deer left, wolves ate them all, we must kill more bears and coyotes, the DNR’s chief idiot must go, it’s time to cancel deer season for two years, we should eliminate all doe tags, and antlerless quotas were too high during earlier generations of deer.

Sheesh. Sen. Tiffany didn’t need Facebook for that. He could have read the same claims in a library’s microfiche files of any local newspaper after any deer season since the 1920s. The only difference, of course, is that folks typically blamed the Chippewa tribes for poor Northwoods deer hunting until the late 1990s. Then the wolf population rebounded, relieving tribal hunters of that particular prejudice.

But if anyone thinks we’ll silence the current caterwaul by reinstating in-person registration, they’re equally guilty of ignoring history. No matter which registration system we use, conspiracy theorists ridicule it. Remember all those unscrupulous gas-station clerks registering the same doe 37 times during earn-a-buck years so friends could claim their buck tags?

Deer Hunting Conspiracy Theories

Facts and figures usually do little to dispel rumors and tall tales.

So let’s get some perspective. The gun-buck kill in the Northern Forest Zone has averaged 22,580 the past five seasons, including in-person registration for the 2012-2014 seasons. Other variables include the 2013-14 winter, the region’s worst in 60 years; and widespread buck-only hunting the past three autumns.

And yet deer kills during the 2016 season were well within the five-year average. The 2016 gun-buck kill — 24,206, including 761 from muzzleloaders – won’t reach 2012’s total of 26,981, but it’s only 7 percent higher than the five-year average. Such differences are insignificant when spread across a zone that covers Wisconsin’s northern third, roughly Highway 64 to the Upper Peninsula and Lake Superior.  In other words, there’s no credible hint of fraudulent registrations, massive or otherwise.

Even so, let’s concede that logic bounces off babble like bullets off Superman. The same folks also believe the DNR is secretly stocking mountain lions, and once stocked rattlesnakes to control turkey populations. They also believe the insurance industry pays the DNR $50 per doe ear to trim the herd to reduce payments for deer-vehicle collisions.

So, what to do?

Put in your earplugs, and don’t stare at their tinfoil hats. You might provoke them. Conspiracy theorists tend to be paranoid, too.

Patrick Durkin

Patrick Durkin

President at Wisconsin Outdoor Communicators Association
Patrick Durkin is a lifelong bowhunter and full-time freelance outdoor writer/editor who lives in Waupaca, Wisconsin. He has covered hunting, fishing and outdoor issues since 1983. His work appears regularly in national hunting publications, and his weekly outdoors column has appeared regularly in over 20 Wisconsin newspapers since 1984.
Patrick Durkin

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