The Economic Impacts of White-Tailed Deer on Wisconsin
Wisconsin has historically been well known for its richness in beauty and natural resources. The land is full of bountiful forests made up of large growing burr oaks and white pines that have long been the subject of human desire and profit, as well as a great number of lakes and flowing streams. Among some of the most abundant and diverse resources that inhabit Wisconsin is the fauna, some of the more plentiful being coyotes, red foxes, and pine martens. However, one that has been especially influential to the people and the culture of Wisconsin is the white-tailed deer. Due to their large numbers in the state, the white-tail has served many purposes in the development of Wisconsin civilization. Deer have been an important food source since before the arrival of European settlers for both Native Americans and Europeans alike. Just as well, deer hides were tanned and used as a primary clothing source by native people. As European settlements grew, the white-tailed deer gradually became the most hunted animal in Wisconsin and even became a point of tourism for out-of-state hunters. Nearing the end of the 19th century and leading into the 20th, the hunting of this animal began to take on a significant economic impact on Wisconsin. Over the next century, these economic impacts of white-tailed deer hunting have shown to have both a positive and negative impact on Wisconsin’s economic history.
The hunting season has historically provided a multi-million dollar intake by the Wisconsin economy every year, and in recent years this number has reached into the multi-billions. These economic gains can be attributed to a multitude of reasons, including the sales of hunting licenses that occur every year, sales of firearms, hunting apparel, and hunting accessories, and jobs supported by the season. However, the white-tailed deer has also caused a great deal of damage which has also resulted in millions of dollars of damage in Wisconsin as well. A hefty portion of this damage is dealt on Wisconsin’s crops and farms, and is only increased by vehicular and personal property damage and personal injury resulting from the hunting season.
The hunting of White-tailed deer has been an integral part of Wisconsin life and culture since before settlers had even arrived in the territory. Before the evolution of what is now the modern sport hunting season existed both market and subsistence hunting. Market hunting is representative mainly of colonial America from the 17th to the early 20th Century, whereas subsistence hunting had existed as long as there have been humans in an area inhabited by deer. The historiography of the hunting of deer is widespread, discussing the phenomena of subsistence, market, and sports hunting in regards to deer population and the impact on human lifestyle and culture. Market hunting research emphasizes the rapid depletion of the deer population and the economic impacts of the meat and fur as a commodity, while subsistence research focuses on a much more stable population and the use of the resource to sustain human life.
The practice of subsistence hunting was one exclusive to native nations and a select few early settlers in colonial America. In the instance of the Choctaw nation in Southeastern United States, White-tailed deer consisted of about 1/3 of their diet and their fur and skin was used for clothing. Evidence of early forms of conservation practices are observed with the Choctaws, as deer hunting was typically a fall and winter activity. This is true for many reasons; the colder weather slowed the spoiling of the meat in killed deer, allowing it to be preserved for the winter (as venison was not part of the primary food cycle of the Choctaw but rather the secondary). The deer were also typically much fatter and winter coat almost fully developed in these seasons to prepare for the colder weather, and this was also the mating season for deer, meaning that bucks in rut will become much more reckless and willing to travel into open area, making them easier to hunt. These practices, based simply on environment and attention to their nation’s demand for those resources, proved not only to not be detrimental to the deer population, but rather even beneficial by curbing overpopulation which could lead to agricultural damage and widespread starvation by the deer. Richard White argues this type of hunting to be the most beneficial to both deer and human populations, but also recognizes that it is no longer possible in a capitalist society.
Market hunting appeared in the North American territories along with the white settlers in the 17th century as a growing demand for furs and meat forced an economic value upon the White-tailed deer. These market hunters employed every method possible for taking deer and shipped the dead game to populated areas such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Cincinnati for sale. Even the native people that were known to actively conserve the population and take only what was needed were quickly nurtured into the market lifestyle, being traders by nature and fueled by an insatiable desire for liquor, which was traded to them by white settlers for furs and meat. By the 1850’s, the imminent destruction of the white-tail population was noticed and prompted calls for game laws, many of which were not answered until the early 20th century. Dahlberg distributes this information not only to show the massive fluctuation in deer populations, but also to convey the dangers that coincided with placing an economic value on a natural resource and what would lead up to the creation of modern conservation laws.
Obviously the two arguments made between Dahlberg and White discuss much different time periods, but both focus greatly on the symbiotic relationship between human beings and wildlife, specifically the White-tailed deer. In reality, the two arguments are very similar; subsistence hunting was good and market hunting was bad. However, the form in which they convey this argument differs in the way that they establish importance on which form was most significant in conserving the population and forming modern hunting culture. White would argue that the development of game conservation was derived from the practices of early native nations in an attempt to counteract the damage done to the deer population, whereas Dahlberg would argue that the development of conservation laws was not an imitation of native practices (at least not intentionally) but rather were created as a means to rebuild the population for future exploitation, and slowly evolved into bag limits and limited hunting seasons that would mark the end of the deer hunting market.
In many sources regarding the evolution of deer hunting from subsistence to sport, historians tend to agree with Dahlberg’s argument either at face value or with only slight variations. However, some historians agree with White’s argument and a growing majority believe that modern gaming laws are a combination of both viewpoints, saying that the development of laws were initially made as a means of rebuilding the population for future exploitation, but many of the ideas used were imitations of early Native American practices, which is becoming more and more widely accepted. The evolution of these laws into modern conservation laws established the best possible scenario for population management and human consumption short of reverting back to subsistence hunting, allowing the deer population to once again return to a more stable state. This also allowed for the state of Wisconsin to build an economy around the growing sport in an attempt to equate the financial benefits experienced from market hunting and the environmental stability of subsistence hunting.
Hunting license sales are one of the greatest contributors to the profit experience during the gun season, and the number of licenses that have been sold have gradually risen since the purchase of hunting licenses were made required in 1897. Starting in the 1950’s up through 1959, Wisconsin experienced an overall sale of 2,366,328 licenses at an average of 236,633 per year. Throughout the 1970’s, these numbers more than doubled to 5,651,640 at an average of 565,164 licenses per year. Finally, license sales reached 6,756,408 at an average of 675,641 per year throughout the 1990’s. Since the white-tailed deer was hunted to near extirpation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, conservation and preservation laws needed to be established by the Wisconsin State Legislature. Regulations were created to construct intermittent closed seasons up until 1935 to allow some time for population restoration, and small bag limits during the open seasons. This careful conservation management allowed for a re-growth in population, but soon began to result in deer populations reaching a point of near over-abundance due to a lack of antlerless seasons. Therefore, the increase in hunting license sales witnessed over the second half of the 20th century is corresponding to the growth in the deer population in an attempt to reach a Department of Natural Resources commissioned population quota, which is a number that is typically regulated by human tolerance of a specific number in population. Much like the changing number in license sales, the cost of licenses has not remained constant either, and has affected the economy differently throughout the years.
As the number of sales has gone up, so has the price of those licenses. Market hunting for the large-scale distribution of venison and deer hide was reaching its end nearing the beginning of the 20th century, and regulations regarding hunting were just beginning to emerge, beginning with the requirement of hunting license purchase in 1897, starting at $1 for residents and $30 for non-residents, which largely came out of Illinois. These prices remained constant until the 1950’s, when in 1951 the resident price was raised to $2.50 and again in 1957 to $4.00, and through the span of the 1950’s brought in $10,766,797 to the Wisconsin economy. The price was then raised again to $5.25 and then to $7.25 in 1972, and finally to $11.00 in 1979 to bring 1970’s license sales to $39,702,771. Finally, license costs were raised to $15.35 in 1987 and then once more to $18.00 in 1991 to bring in an incredible $119,824,928. Identical to the numbers of sales, this trend of rising income can be attributed to the population regrowth due to active conservation management and an increased amount of hunters. With more deer in the population and more hunters actively searching for them, more conservation laws needed to be created and more people were needed to enforce them. These new demands account for the occasional increases in license sales to help fund the programs that would govern them, and also goes towards the purchase of hunting lands for public hunting and hunter education and safety classes. License sales are not the only contributors to Wisconsin hunting profit, however. Hunters pay significant amounts of money to prepare themselves for the hunting season as well.
The sale of hunting supplies such as firearms, ammunition, apparel, and other hunting accessories are arguably the greatest contributors to the economic boost experienced during the Wisconsin hunting season. In 1991, retail sales alone reached a total of $256,473,000 from hunters preparing themselves for the upcoming season. While this number by itself is very high, it is increased even more by a phenomenon called the Total Multiplier Effect, otherwise known as the “Ripple Effect”. The Total Multiplier Effect refers to the money made when the original retail sale is passed on from the retailers to wholesalers, manufacturers, and others in the economy that in 1991 added yet another $513,307,000 to the original retail sales made. In addition to sales is the Wisconsin State sales tax, which tends to be one of the largely overlooked contributors to state profit resulting from the deer hunting season, which brought in $10,266,000 in 1991. Finally, a spectacular number of jobs are supported by the purchase of firearms and accessories, which include food, travel expenses, magazine subscription and club dues which reached 7,860 in 1991. The hunting equipment and accessories sold in 1991 alone had greatly exceeded the profit of license sales from the entire decade of the 1990’s, making this possibly the greatest contributor. Although many products such as clothing and firearms last many years and hunters don’t need to purchase new ones every hunting season, new hunters are introduced into Wisconsin every year that needs the equipment to safely and fully enjoy the hunting season, which typically consist of young teenagers just coming of age for hunter safety courses. For this reason, retail sales along with the ripple effect of wholesalers and manufacturers, and state tax income, will be a continuously profitable venture. Despite the hefty profit experienced by the Wisconsin economy from the white-tailed deer, the state must also take into consideration the amount of damage these animals cause and the amount of money they cost their government.
The extreme damage done to agricultural products by the white-tailed deer came to reach such an extent that government programs had to be created. Wisconsin has had a Wildlife Damage Program since 1931. The original program called for conservation wardens and wildlife managers to conduct appraisals, compensating farmers about 80% of their assessed damage losses, adding up to approximately $2 million paid to farmers in the 50 year duration of the program. The original Wildlife Damage Program reached its last decade in the 1970’s because the number of eligible claims began to greatly exceed available funds, requiring compensation to be prorated where all available funds were distributed equally between all claim makers. General dissatisfaction with the way the program was being handled led to legislature terminating it in 1980, and three years later, legislature proposed and established the Wildlife Damage Abatement and Claims Program (WDACP) in response to concerns from the agricultural community and upon recommendations by the Wildlife Damage Study Committee and a Hunter-Landowner Council appointed by the Natural Resources Board. This program was organized around county administration to provide local control and to minimize costs, although the Wisconsin DNR was still responsible for managing the program, reviewing county plans of administration, and providing technical assistance.
From 1990 to 1997, the number of claims filed and the appraised damage losses in the program increased, with a particularly dramatic increase from 1995 to 1997, averaging $2.5 million and 1,000 claims per year. In 1998, the legislature revised the program to strengthen hunting access requirements by landowners and to increase maximum allowable damage payments, causing a dramatic drop of program enrollment by nearly 50%. The deer herd continued to increase during this period, displaying that the drop in enrollment did not suggest decreased damage to crops, but rather was an expression of farmers’ discontent with the new hunting access requirements. Wisconsin had experienced a mix of population growth due to extensive conservation laws and poor agricultural damage abatement programs throughout the 20th century, which in turn causes the significant increase in damage done to Wisconsin crops (most specifically corn) that is shown specifically attributed to overpopulation where the deer’s natural food source had become too scarce. The drastic drop in claims shows how poorly the abatement programs and strengthened hunting access requirements were received by Wisconsin farmers despite the growing amount of damage being done to their crops and an increased maximum amount of damage payment. This damage to crops by the white-tailed deer then not only continues to cause an enormous economic strain on Wisconsin farmers, but also on the Wisconsin state government for the payment of damage claims.
Agricultural damage claims are paid directly out of the Wisconsin state government through damage abatement programs, naturally having an adverse effect on the Wisconsin economy. Deer damage represents approximately 90% of appraised agricultural losses statewide, leaving the other 10% caused by bears, geese, and turkeys. In 1981, estimated total deer damage after appraisals were $15 million, increasing to $36.7 million in 1984 and slightly decreasing to $28 million in 1997. These however are estimated totals of actual loss, compared to appraised losses which typically are much lower. Not all damage to crops are reported to the state abatement programs, therefore leaving a significant amount of damage not reimbursed. In 1998, a total of only 470 damage claims were paid after a total of appraised losses at $1,579,506, although only $1,220,166 were actually eligible for payment. This is significantly less than the year before, as there were about 600 less claims made and total appraised losses decreased by $1,559,132, which is due to the overall disapproval with WDACP regulations. Other factors affect abatement costs for the state as well other than damage reparations, including permanent barrier fences, temporary fences, and deer repellants for crops, all of which cost the Wisconsin state government an additional $456,955. Much of these claim payments come from a portion of hunting license sales as well as money coming from the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, which placed an 11% excise tax on firearms and ammunition in the United States that would be distributed between the states by the Secretary of the Interior. By the 1970’s, amendments were made to also put a 10% tax on handguns and 11% on archery equipment for further funding. Unfortunately, this means less money in the Wisconsin state budget as well as less money out of the pockets of Wisconsinites in the form of excise taxes and increased license costs. This rapid overpopulation in white-tailed deer is not only devastating to the farmer’s fields however, but also to every Wisconsin citizen that travels across the state.
Vehicle-deer collisions is an incident that is feared by every citizen that operates a motor vehicle and is one that plagues Wisconsinites every year. The Wisconsin DNR and the Department of Transportation work incredibly hard to produce accurate data, however accurate counts of total vehicle-deer collisions are not possible because not all deer carcasses are located and removed from the roads. Some deer continue to travel after being struck and later die away from the roads, while others cause very little property damage and accident reports are not filed to the D.O.T., so records of the Wisconsin DNR regarding carcass disposal only provides estimates of the minimum number of deer hit by vehicles. From 1985 to 1995, reports showed an average of almost 36,000 collisions per year, although studies indicate the actual figures may be more than double that. Deer crashes are typically measured by collision per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and to show the rapidly growing rate of population and collisions, in 1978 there were 24 crashes per 100 million VMT, resulting in deer crashes as 5.1% of all crashes. By 1994, this number peaked at 49 crashes per 100 million VMT, resulting in deer crashes as 16.6% of all crashes, and deer crashes resulting in the highest injury/death count in 1995 at 831. These numbers are highly dependent on both deer density and overall volume of traffic, so counties surrounding the Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay metropolitan areas have some of the highest frequencies of collisions due to the high levels of commuter traffic. The overall costs then of property damage and personal injury are estimated at approximately $92 million per year. Even though drivers are on the lookout for deer crossing the roads, it is nearly unavoidable when the situation arises. The vehicle-deer collisions continued to increase and peaked in 1994-1995 parallel to the excessively large deer population before the management reforms in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, which emphasized that the only true way to efficiently reduce collisions is to reduce deer numbers. In addition to vehicular damage and casualties by cause of the white-tailed deer, hunters experience dangerous conditions during the hunting season as well that can occasionally result in injury.
Every year, hunters have accidents caused by firearms, archery equipment, and by careless movement through the forest both self-inflicted and by other parties. Accidents began to peak in the mid-20th century at a total of 282 accidents, 61 of which being fatal. Throughout the 1960’s, accident numbers reached 492, 74 of which being fatal. Due to the increase in accidents, the option of hunter education classes were introduced in 1967, and in the 1970’s, accident numbers had slightly decreased to 371, with 60 being fatal. In an attempt to further diminish these numbers, blaze orange apparel became a required part of the gun deer hunting season starting in 1980, and hunter education classes became mandatory in 1985. Following the requirement of safety classes from 1985-1989, a total of 421 hunting accidents were reported, with 28 being fatal, and throughout the 1990’s, a total of 671 hunting accidents were reported with 38 of which being fatal. Even though blaze orange and hunter education courses had been made mandatory, hunting accidents appeared to have increased. Like many of the other economic problems associated with the white-tailed deer, incidents have increased due to growing deer populations and an increased amount of hunters, however experts believe these numbers would have been much higher, especially in fatalities, if not for these requirements. The hospital bills and funeral arrangements that result from these accidents tend to get very expensive, and is especially taxing on individual citizens as it mostly comes directly out of their own pockets.
The hunting season is an exciting and prosperous time for Wisconsin and its people. It brings hunting families together and injects a great deal of money into the Wisconsin economy through license sales, hunting accessories, and private businesses. However, history has proven white-tailed deer and the hunting season to also have a detrimental impact on the economy through agricultural damage, vehicular damage, and personal injury. Vehicular and hunting incidents are not incredibly frequent however, and do not add up financially in comparison to license and accessory sales and agricultural damage claims are compensated by profits made by those sales. This shows that the profits exceed the losses regarding deer throughout the year in Wisconsin, and most specifically during the hunting season. Although the white-tailed deer affect the Wisconsin economy in both a positive and negative way, they tend to be significantly more positive in effect to the economy. In addition to contributing to necessary population control, the hunting season is continually a profitable venture for Wisconsin and allows the white-tailed deer to continue to be an enjoyable member of the Wisconsin community and a valuable asset to the state.
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Deer Management for 2000 and Beyond Wisconsin Agricultural Damage Study Group, Final Report of the Agricultural Damage Study Group. Madison: Wisconsin Conservation Congress, 2000.
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