MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin deer hunters have hauled their kills to roadside taverns or gas stations to be counted for decades, hanging around after the work is done to slug beers, swap stories and show off their trophies.
Now, though, the tradition, camaraderie and spending in-person registration generates are in jeopardy. The Department of Natural Resources has proposed moving to online and telephone reporting as soon as this fall.
Gov. Scott Walker's deer trustee, Texas researcher James Kroll, proposed the switch to as a way to tally kills faster, save money and make life more convenient for hunters. But tavern and convenience store owners who have relied on registration to draw in hunters for 70 years worry about the loss of business, and DNR officials warn they could lose detailed biological data on the state's herd and tissue samples used to test for chronic wasting disease.
The DNR's board is set to vote on the plan Wednesday along with other rules implementing Kroll's recommendations on improving Wisconsin deer hunting.
"It affects the culture. It affects the local economy," said Lee Fahrney, a deer hunter and spokesman for the Conservation Congress, a group of sportsmen who advise the DNR on policy. "It just affects the whole social underpinnings of the annual deer hunt."
Currently hunters register their kills at 626 locations, including DNR-run stations, taverns and convenience stores. DNR workers staff 100 or so stations during the popular nine-day November gun hunt to collect age and sex data as well as tissue samples for CWD testing. The agency uses data from that hunt and others to tally kills, track buck mortality and gender ratios, and assess deer health and antler characteristics.
The rules call for eliminating in-person registration across all deer seasons in an effort to maximize savings, said Eric Lobner, a DNR wildlife supervisor who is coordinating efforts to implement Kroll's recommendations. The first sites would disappear this fall; all would be gone by 2015.
A DNR staff report noted the move would save about $182,000 annually that the agency spends on supplies and payments to registration stations.
The report noted some potential problems, though, including a potential decrease in registrations and loss of social interaction. But it downplayed the economic effect, saying hunters might just disperse more evenly across bars, taverns and stores rather than congregating at registration locations.
Wanda Dogs, who has been registering deer for 15 years at the Dog House Tavern in Elroy, said the switch would hurt business.
"Deer hunting's a national holiday around here," she said. "Lot of money you could stand to lose. It helps the whole community, not only our station, but it helps everybody when you have these hunters about. They run to the stores, they run to get gas."
The DNR report suggested business owners could attract hunters by offering them the use of a computer to complete online registration.
Dogs scoffed at that idea, saying she already pays for Internet service at her home and doesn't want to pay "double-duty" for her bar, too.
Craig Moen, owner of Buckhorn Bar and Grill, a registration site in Prairie Farm, said it would be a hassle to help hunters through the DNR's website. Hunters will just use their own computers and smartphones, he said.
"I hope they don't (adopt remote registration)," Moen said. "It would definitely hurt my business to not have that. They don't all buy something, but a big share of them do."
Even the Conservation Congress, which endorsed Kroll's original recommendations, is withholding support for remote registration as laid out in the rules. Fahrney said members of the congress' executive council fear the economic impact on businesses, more unregistered kills and the loss of tradition.
"Sometimes when you pull into a registration station and you see a crowd around a vehicle you can bet there is something special," Stan Brownell, a Sparta deer hunter and Conservation Congress executive council member, wrote in an email to Fahrney. "Maybe a neighbor or someone you know hunts in the same area and they get something special and you see that and hopes arise for future deer hunts for your kids."
The DNR staff report said some in-person registration should continue to collect detailed data on deer. But Lobner said the agency is looking at requiring a few randomly chosen hunters to register in-person, asking hunters to submit jaws from their deer or taking tissue samples from animals brought to meat processors.
The DNR's board could adopt the rules, modify them or reject them completely. The board's chairman, Preston Cole, wouldn't indicate which way the panel might go Wednesday, saying he wants to hear public testimony at the meeting.
"Calling it in will certainly change the landscape of hunting," Cole said. "There's a whole culture that has evolved around showing up around the deer-check station."