By Mark Kenyon 

Two years ago I sat next to Dr. James Kroll in a dusty old Southern Michigan fair ground barn, discussing food plots, deer management and Michigan hunting in an interview for Wired To Hunt. He seemed to be a regular guy, with a slight Texas twang and a familiar obsession with whitetails. I never would have expected that this same man would someday be the topic of discussion for political candidate debates, accused of trying to “privatize hunting in America”, and become widely known as the “Deer Czar”.  Now in 2012 this is all true, as a result of Kroll accepting the position of Wisconsin White-tailed Deer Trustee with the responsibility of reviewing the current state of affairs in the Badger State’s deer hunting world.

To say the appointment of Dr. James Kroll to this position and the resulting formation of his Review Committee was controversial would be a gross understatement. Critics, naysayers and doomsday proclaimers have been coming out of the wood work everywhere you look. Now though, the results of the “Deer Czar”‘s report are in and speculation can finally be put to rest. But before we dive into the Commitee’s final review, let’s first take a look at who the Deer Czar and his team are, the criticism they’ve weathered, and the opinions on this topic from such figure heads in the whitetail world as Ted Nugent and the Quality Deer Management Association.

Why Did Wisconsin Need A Deer Czar?

Over the past decade or so hunter frustration in Wisconsin has risen from a murmor to a deafening roar, and finally with a 2009 whitetail harvest that was the lowest in 15 years, action needed to be taken. In steps Governor Scott Walker, who during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign promised to bring change to the wisconsin whitetail world and soon after his inauguration he set those wheels in motion. Govenor Walker was quoted in Field & Stream recently stating, “Deer hunting is important on so many levels. I’m a deer hunter, and I know what that heritage means to this state. It’s also an economic issue; deer hunters bring a lot of money to the hotels, restaurants, and businesses here. And finally, I’m acutely aware of the hunter recruitment and retention issue; we’re losing hunters and we can’t afford to. Wisconsin simply wasn’t living up to it’s strong deer hunting reputation. It was time to do something.”

That something was the hiring of Dr. James Kroll and his team to review the current state of affairs in wisconsin whitetail hunting. Specifically, this team was to review “the methodology and accuracy of population estimates for Wisconsin’s white-tailed deer herd, the necessity and effectiveness of Wisconsin’s policies in response to Chronic Wasting Disease, the significance of the impact of Wisconsin’s timber wolf population upon the white-tailed deer herd, and its impact upon white-tailed deer management policies and plans, if any; and the structure of Wisconsin’s deer hunting periods…and necessity and efficacy of hunting policies and plans designed to control the size of Wisconsin’s white-tailed deer herd.”

Who Is This Czar?

In an effort to keep this from becoming a novel, I’ll refrain from recounting the accomplishments and experiences of Kroll and company at length. But rest assured, that list is a long one. Dr. Kroll is a Professor of Forest Wildlife, the Director of the Institute for White-Tailed Deer Management and Research at Stephen F Austin University, a frequently published author, and contributor to North American Whitetail TV – just to name a few. As his “Deer Czar” A-Team, Kroll hired Gary Alt and Dave Guynn. Alt previously managed the monumental deer management turn-around in Pennsylvania in the early 2000’s and Guynn is on the board of directors for the QDMA. In short, it’s a group of men that know a thing or two about whitetails and how to properly manage them.

All that being said, to get a more thorough overview of the situation I’ve summarized above, take a look at the Wisconsin TV news report on this undertaking from the fall of 2011… Video: Wisconsin Deer Czar, James Kroll

The Court Of Public Opinion 

With this base understanding of the situation at hand, possibly the next most interesting news has been the incredibly polarized opinions that this appointment and review have elicited. This situation has become so heated and contentious that an esteemed whitetail industry member refused to share any comment with us at all, because as he described it “the situation is political – not biological”.

As mentioned before, the Deer Czar and his crew have generated nothing short of a public outcry. But on the other side, there have also been some strong showings of support.

Most notably may be that of the legendary rocker and whitetail addict, Ted Nugent. We reached out to Ted in regards to his thoughts on the Deer Czar, and he responded by saying, “Dr. James Kroll is the best thing to happen for Wisconsin deer & deer hunters in 50 years. Wisconsin’s DNR became a PC tool counter to sound wildlife management many years ago. Governor Scott Walker continues to save the Badger State. Thank God.

A similarly positive response, although not accusatory of the WDNR, came from Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association. When asked for thoughts on the appointment of this commitee, Kip explained the following…

Having an outside entity come in and audit a state’s wildlife management program can be a risky proposition.  However in the is case, Dr. Kroll couldn’t have picked a better team than Drs. David Guynn and Gary Alt.  Dave and Gary’s involvement will be beneficial to Wisconsin’s DNR and hunters.

Now on the other side of the coin, there have been innumerable criticisms, complaints and in some cases downright lies propagated by those in opposition of Governor Walkers plan.  One of the more frequent and pointed critics has been Dan Schmidt, Editor-in-Chief of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine. In describing the release of the final report by Kroll, Schmidt wrote “If a tree falls in front of 700,000 deer hunters, would anyone hear it? That depends. If the tree is dressed as a deer czar spewing buzzwords, double-speak, and unrealistic, unattainable hyperbole as it’s falling, everyone will probably just step to the side, brace for the crash and then thank God it’s finished.”

In response to the Commitee’s “Preliminary Report” earlier this year, Timothy Van Deelen, an associate professor for the University of Wisconsin, commented “The findings and conclusions drawn in the report appear to me to be significantly lacking in the scientific content and objective analysis one would need to ‘forge a new age,’ which I take to mean something similar to making big changes in Wisconsin’s deer management.”

Above and beyond all of that, a political action group called Wisconsin Citizens Media Cooperative, went so far as to claim “If Kroll gets his way, public land hunters will get the shaft. The deer herd no longer would be managed as a public resource, but as the private property of wealthy landowners. Wisconsin will become like Europe, where hunting is the privilege of the wealthy.”

The Findings of The Report

Putting all of the commentary aside now, we finally have the full report produced by Kroll and his team to examine. Final recommendations were produced covering ten high level categories; these being population management, hunting regulations/seasons/bag limits, predator studies/management, chronic wasting disease, harvest data/herd health/productivity, habitat, people, DNR research/technical publications, conservation congress, and personnel. This full list of recommendations and findings is much too comprehensive to recant here, but you can see a high level list within the Executive Summary linked here.

For our purposes though, I thought I’d highlight just a handful of the more impactful or interesting recommendations noted in the final report.

1. The report recommends that the state do away with their current methodology for state-wide population estimation and harvest goal creation – and focus more on the local level. Also, rather than working towards a set goal harvest number, it was recommended to instead work towards a goal in each locality of either stabilizing, increasing, or decreasing population based on numerous factors.

2. In an effort to simplify regulations, it was recommended to begin adjusting regulations, harvest goals, and permit quotas only every 3-5 years rather than annually.

3. Recommending the creation of a DMAP, otherwise known as a Deer Management Assistance Program. According to the report, “The primary goal of most DMAPs is to allow landowners and hunters to work together with the state agency to manage deer on a site-specific basis. Landowners/hunt clubs have the option to increase, stabilize or decrease the deer population on their property enrolled in DMAP. These objectives are accomplished by controlling the number of antlerless deer (does and male fawns) harvested, primarily through the issuance of DMAP antlerless tags.” In the specific case of Wisconsin, Kroll’s team has recommended DMAPs with the objective to “1)improve relationships between hunters, landowners and the WDNR; 2) provide a means for site-specific management of antlerless deer; and 3) provide a data base for site specific management that can also be used to supplement data bases for management decisions at the DMU and state levels.”

4. In regards to predator management, the main take away point is that more research is needed and that a wolf management program should be instituted. That being said, the research the team did have access to did not point to a clear negative impact on whitetails from the increasing wolf population.

5. The handling of Chronic Wasting Disease in Wisconsin over the past decade was deemed to be ineffective. It was determined that “there is a clear need for a new sampling protocol for CWD in Wisconsin, one that gives a true picture of the progress of the disease; but more   importantly, one designed to detect spread.”

6. On the issue of harvest data and collection it was recommended that the public be brought into the process more, more training should be provided to biologists to monitor such things as herd productivity, and additional education materials should be provided.

7. A major recommendation was to focus more on habitat wellness when determining harvest goals. Specifically, it was stated that “local   biologists/technicians should be required to conduct annual range  evaluations to assess habitat health and condition. Foresters also should be  involved in these activities, public and private.”

8. Lastly, a very important string that connected most categories of their analysis was the importance of the general hunting public, and making sure they felt included, empowered and educated on whitetail management in the state. Many recommendations were put forth regarding the human dimension of many of these topics.

There are far more recommendations and details on each available in the full version of the committee’s report, which you can view by clicking this link.

My Thoughts

Pheww. Admitedly, that’s a lot of information, but if you made it this far, maybe you’re interested in my take on all of this. So I’ll give it to you.

I believe I sit somewhere in between the fervent Kroll bashers and those that say the committee’s creation and resulting recommendations are a Godsend for Wisconsin. Given the fact that I’m not from Wisconsin, I can’t claim to fully understand the challenges and frustrations in the state leading up to this point. But from all I’ve read and heard, there was serious discontent and a very palpable need for change or at least moderation of the current state of affairs. So from the outside looking in, I don’t have serious issues with the creation of this commitee, especially given the importance that deer and deer hunting hold in the state of Wisconsin.

As for the specific selection of Kroll, Alt and Guynn – I feel that this was a strong and qualified team. I understand people’s concerns regarding Kroll’s history in Texas and that state’s bias towards private land management, but his additional experience over many years as a biologist and researcher across the entire United States makes him reasonably qualified in my opinion. I also know that Kroll has done extensive research and management work in Northern Michigan, which is definitely comparable to Wisconsin. Regardless of the various other “mini-controversies” surrounding Dr. Kroll, I believe his resume on it’s own makes him a strong fit for this role. Additionally Alt’s experience and success with the transformation of Pennsylvania’s deer management program made him a terrific addition to this task force in my opinion.

After reading through the entire final report produced by Kroll and his team, I feel like the review was fair and the majority of recommendations sound. On the other hand, I would say that some  of the report seemed “soft”. There were many subjective recommendations or fluffy ideas pitched about, as well as many calls for further research. This may not necessarily be a bad thing in all cases, but I can see why some people may have complaints about some of the contents. Overall though, I believe a satisfactory number of reasonable ideas were proposed. I also believe that claims of Kroll trying to privatize hunting in WI or screw public land hunters fall flat on their face after reading this report. Most every recommendation I read through had applications to private AND public ground, and specific ideas and action items were proposed to apply many of these solutions to public grounds. While I don’t think this committee and report will solve all of Wisconsins problems, I do believe it will point them in a more positive direction.

I don’t agree with all of Kroll’s philosophies, recommendations or statements. But I do feel that the core of his whitetail management philosophy is sound.

Kroll has likened deer management to “a three-legged stool; one leg representing population management, another habitat, and the third human dimensions (people “management”). The reason for choosing this analogy is each of the three legs is equally important; and, without one the stool is rendered useless.”

I believe Wisconsin’s whitetail future and the country’s as well, will be on a solid path forward if we can translate that over-arching philosophy into reality across this nation.

The information researched to support this article came from a variety of sources such as Field & Stream, Deer & Deer Hunting, and To dive deeper into this topic, visit any one of these websites. And be sure to read the executive summary or full report from the Wisconsin White-Tailed Deer Trustee and Review Committee.