By Doug Duren
We’ve practiced buck management on the Duren Farm in southwestern Wisconsin for about 25 years. It started by simply talking about how it would be cool to kill bigger bucks on our 400-acre farm in northeastern Richland County.
My late brother, Matt, had made a comment on shooting smaller bucks that gave us a theme. Matt would inspect a young buck and say, “That would be a Nice Buck Next Year!” After Matt died in 1995, “NBNY” became our deer hunting mantra. About the same time, we noticed a big increase in our area’s deer herd, but the population surge didn’t produce bigger bucks. We learned how a larger herd can hurt growth rates in bigger bucks, and so we started shooting more does to achieve a healthy, better-balanced deer herd with more older bucks.
In 2001-02 a neighbor received agricultural-damage deer tags and shot 20-plus antlerless deer on his farm. In 2003, our farm’s big-buck era began. We saw how herd control and our “Nice Buck Next Year” motto increased the age, size and trophy quality of our bucks. We began to shoot more does than ever, and enjoyed a bonus, too: we had all the venison we wanted, with plenty to share.
I shot the biggest buck ever taken on our farm in Autumn 2005. We call him “The Standard,” and his 187 inches of antler made him one of the biggest bucks taken in the area that year. Shooting 140-inch and bigger bucks became our goal and we often achieved it in the following years. Taking does, plenty of venison, and killing trophy bucks- it was a deer hunter’s dream.
We developed an Adaptive Forest Management program for our woodland in 2008. The plan was based on sound forest management and improving wildlife habitat, and melded nicely with our deer-management goals. Oak regeneration was a big part of the forest-management plan, so we kept deer numbers in check to protect our oak seedlings and stay aligned with our deer-management goals. It’s another piece of the puzzle.
About that time, an old sombrero ended up in the farmhouse because one of our hunters made a bad decision. “The Sombrero” soon symbolized poor hunting decisions, such as shooting a buck fawn or yearling buck. They had to “wear the sombrero” for such offenses. It was a fun, but firm reminder to follow NBNY principles. Even some of our new and first-time hunters – who were exempt from the NBNY rules until they became experienced – showed their respect for the idea by wearing the sombrero if they shot a small buck.
While we followed NBNY ideas on the farm, Chronic wasting disease (CWD) turned up just 70 miles south of us in 2002. When Wisconsin established CWD management zones, it included our area in the northernmost part of the CWD zone. That designation expanded deer hunting’s gun seasons and hunting opportunities as the Department of Natural Resources tried to control and possibly eradicate the disease. We began learning about CWD and followed the science and news about efforts to control it. For a few years, we simply took a “business as usual” approach to deer hunting and our NBNY deer-management program. We killed far more does than bucks and thought we were doing our part to control the herd, improve hunting and possibly slow CWD’s spread.
Meanwhile, CWD and disease-control methods became controversial. The DNR’s biologists and administrators advocated trying to eradicate the disease by eradicating deer in the “hot zone.” That effort generated strong opposition from some deer hunters, who thought the DNR was being overzealous. Opponents then took their arguments and complaints to state and regional politicians. Politicians, not scientists, were soon managing CWD, and the Legislature also slashed funding for research and monitoring. Even so, DNR biologists and researchers kept studying the disease as best they could. Around 2010 they verified CWD is most likely to infect older deer, so we began to take older deer in for testing each fall.
We’ve enjoyed tremendous deer hunting on the farm, and we’ve shared that experience with many hunters during this “golden age.” Each year we invite over 20 people to hunt the farm. In fact, some of the best hunts we’ve had were with this rotating cast of family and friends – old and new, and from near and far. It’s been a joy to share the place and the hunting.
A wide view of the county and sections (620 acres) where CWD positives were found
The section the farm is in, the number of deer tested and the positives.
Learning More in the CWD Era:
Since 2010 we increased the number of deer we brought in for CWD testing, and starting in 2015 we’ve tested every deer killed or found dead on the farm. When the November 2017 gun season opened Nov. 18, we had yet to have a deer from our farm test positive for CWD. But whenever I studied the state’s CWD distribution maps, I saw the disease closing in. We knew it was just a matter of time before we confirmed CWD on our farm. We were surrounded, after all. That inevitability occurred in November of this year when the laboratory found CWD in 2 bucks we shot. The reality of CWD being present on our farm is the worst news I’ve ever received as a landowner, hunter/meat-eater, and conservationist. As the disease continues to move and establish through the Driftless Area, we’re learning more about how it spreads and what we can do to slow it. Ongoing research hasn’t pinpointed how CWD spreads, but it’s assumed animal-to-animal contact is the most likely vehicle. And given that deer are social creatures, two major factors likely increase those contacts:
1. Population Density- It’s a simple idea: The more deer in the area, the more often they’ll be in contact with each other. Think of a crowded bar. People are talking, shaking hands, bumping into each other, touching shared surfaces, etc. Being around folks who are sick with a cold or the flu makes us more likely to pick up a bug from close contact. That’s partly why we keep kids home from school or stay home from work. With CWD, it makes sense that the more deer living in an infected area, the greater the likelihood the disease will spread.
2. Demographics- Some studies show that a certain segment of the population spreads the disease more readily than the rest. Let’s use the bar scenario again. No matter the crowd size, let’s assume two of the “bug” carriers are gregarious and affectionate. They shake hands, give hugs and perhaps take someone home occasionally. Let’s say they also travel a lot, which means they spread their warmth, charms, and disease far and wide. In the White-tailed deer’s world, bucks are the most social and wide-ranging group; especially young bucks. Yearling bucks usually get pushed out by their mothers one year after they’re born, while the doe fawn is more likely to remain with the doe’s family group. As their second summer progresses, yearling bucks seek new territory and join bachelor groups. When the pre-rut begins in early fall, they’re settling into new territories, but still might travel far while trying to breed does or avoid more aggressive bucks. Those travels continue during the rut, with bucks seeking does, new territory and other opportunities. That’s why young bucks, simply through their behavior, are the most likely deer to spread CWD to new areas.
Given all the science about the disease and deer habits, what should we do?
Retiring the Sombrero: A New Era in Deer Management on the Duren Farm
All the history and information we’ve accumulated about CWD the past 15 years brings me to this conclusion: If I’m to call myself a conservationist – one who’s concerned about deer, deer hunting, wildlife and wildlife habitat in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area – I must keep learning more about CWD. I’m using that knowledge as a member of our County Deer Advisory Committee (CDAC), and I actively advocate for herd population and demographic control, and better CWD policies and herd-management tools. Richland County, for example, has 75-plus deer per square mile of deer habitat! CWD aside, the land can’t sustain such herd sizes without long-term damage to their habitat. I also try to be a good example of healthy deer management, no matter how it affects hunting on our farm, and that includes my interest in killing bigger bucks and following the Nice Buck Next Year idea.
Our farm is now on the front edge of this slowly spreading disease, which has forever changed deer and deer hunting. I realize our deer-management changes affect only a few hundred acres and might make little difference in slowing the spread, but I think we should “take off the gloves” to fight this disease. That means reducing the herd more aggressively by removing restrictions on the age or antler size of bucks while encouraging hunters to kill more antlerless deer.
And so that’s the new policy on the Duren farm in 2017. We’ve retired the sombrero and removed all harvest restrictions. Our only policy is to take safe, ethical and lethal shots.
I’m also trying to urge more aggressive hunting policies beyond our farm. That’s one of my objectives as a member of Richland County’s Deer Advisory Council. Our citizen-based CDAC refuses to ignore that CWD prevalence has reached 45 percent in adult bucks in the southeastern part of our county, and 30 percent in yearling bucks and 20 percent in adult does. That’s why our council requested and received liberal antlerless tags this past fall, and we will continue to ask for “Earn a Buck” rules once again. We need every tool possible to help slow CWD’s spread. I support those actions because I love White-tailed deer and deer hunting. Although I’m discouraged by the lack of action by Wisconsin legislators and the governor to help control the disease, I’m optimistic that science and sound reasoning will win out. We must improve our response to this horrible disease.
By Doug Duren