Groundhog Day at the WCC: Another Attempt to Legalize the Hunting of White Deer

Despite several failed attempts over the past eight years to make hunting white deer legal, a group of hunters is trying once again to gain public support for the idea through a question on the 2021 Wisconsin Conservation Congress Spring Hearing ballot.

The Spring Hearings are a unique Wisconsin tradition that give the public a chance to weigh in on proposed rule changes regarding hunting, fishing, trapping, and other natural resource topics. Although results are only advisory, they can influence legal change by the Natural Resources Board (NRB) and Wisconsin legislature.

Ballot questions come from the DNR, the NRB, and the WCC itself. Groups and citizens can also offer rule changes, called “citizen resolutions,” which must pass in their county of origin first and be approved at various WCC levels before being put on the following year’s WCC general ballot.

This year’s question on white deer was originally passed in Wood County where a group of hunters has been trying for some time to legalize the hunting of white deer. The 2021 WCC question reads, in broader wording: “Would you support legalizing the harvest of white (not albino) deer statewide?”

If this question sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it is almost identical to a 2014 WCC ballot question, but with the exclusion of albinos.

The 2014 proposal to hunt white deer was a huge fail–only 1,915 Spring Hearing attendees voted in favor of the question while a whopping 3939 (the majority in 69 of 72 counties) voted against it. This tally was particularly interesting since almost all the voters were hunters.

In 2015 another WCC ballot question, also out of Wood County, asked voters “to give CDACs (County Deer Advisory Groups) authority to request white deer hunting.” This attempt to shift control of the white deer hunting issue to counties resulted in a much closer vote, but also failed.

In 2017 the WCC chair at the time, Larry Bonde, prompted by the Wood County hunters, appealed directly to the Natural Resources Board for a white deer season. Board members, some of them annoyed that this issue was being brought up still again, had strong feelings about the proposal…

Board member Fred Prehn proclaimed: “We just went through this a couple years ago and it needs to be left alone.” After claims of large numbers of white deer in Marathon County, Fred responded, “I live in Marathon County and I’ve never seen one.”

Board member Gary Zimmer (Forest County) recounted how a white buck in his area was “what everyone talked about,” and how upset they were when it was hit by a car. They had it mounted so people could continue to see him. Gary’s sentiment: “This needs to be left alone and they need to stay protected.”

Board member William Bruins (Dodge County) said he hadn’t seen a white deer either and concluded: “The Board should take no action on this and leave them protected.” Which, fortunately, they did.

Not to be deterred though, Larry Bonde came back to the Board again in 2019 with a written appeal to legalize the hunting of white deer. “White deer,” he argued, “are no different than brown deer,” and that munching young trees, crashing into cars, and potentially carrying disease make them as guilty of mass deer crimes as any other color deer—and hence, fair targets for hunters.

Larry also argued that the “large numbers” of white deer in certain areas make it “a challenge for a hunter to harvest a typically colored deer,” especially when “a dozen or more white deer (are) in range.”

Actually, if Wood, or any other counties have this many white deer, which is highly unlikely, they better start putting up the tourist signs and sending the biologists in to do a study—this could literally be a worldwide first. It has not happened in a natural environment anywhere in the world—ever!

The letter continues: “The continued protection of white deer is only going to exacerbate the current problems. If left unaddressed these populations will continue to grow and frustrations in some areas of the state will continue to mount. We need to start taking a serious look at this situation.”

Message translated: Wood County hunters say there are too many white deer and they would be more than glad to do something about it—a classic case of foxes demanding access to the chicken house. What are hunters really after here: more hunting opportunities, or a trophy mount for the living room wall?

So what about the nonhunters who seldom attend or vote at WCC Hearings? The WCC Hearing results have typically not been a measure of how this vastly overlooked segment of the public feels. Wisconsin’s resources and wildlife belong to those residents, too, and they vastly outnumber hunters.

According to a 2005-2010 DNR survey, 57% of Wisconsinites enjoyed just viewing and photographing wildlife while only 19.2% “hunted big game.” A 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey showed 40% of U.S. residents enjoyed wildlife-related activities, while only 5% hunted.

People everywhere like wildlife, but they especially like the white deer. Stories and photos make headline news and often go viral. Cities have naming contests. Large bucks become legends. There are even white deer that have Facebook pages devoted to them, and not infrequently, popular “cervid citizens” are mounted for display or memorials created for them after they pass.

There are a number of people, however, (as in Wood, Marathon, and Winnebago counties) who are more interested in shooting the white deer than watching them, and Larry Bonde argues that “local citizens that are impacted by the presence of white deer (should) be able to have a say in making a decision on hunting (these animals).”

Rule makers and hunters, however, need to tread lightly on the subject of hunting “because there are so many.” Without more accurate statistics, it is still unlikely that there are that many white deer in these counties, and a local population in no way represents occurrence over a broader area.

In 1914, the last of an estimated 6 billion Passenger Pigeons died in a Cincinnati zoo—a species at one time so plentiful that flocks blocked the sun for days at a time. Hunters continued to kill them even when their numbers dwindled. 30-60 million bison were also hunted to near-extinction. What will really happen to the white deer if hunting is allowed?

The bigger picture is that white deer remain extremely rare across the state and are even more rare across the country. White deer have virtually never achieved any great numbers in the wild (even after 81 years of protection in Wisconsin) and local populations have not necessarily lasted. It is naive to think that Wood County’s (or any other county’s) white deer will always be there.

As far as shooting white deer and not albinos, this is getting into some tricky genetics. Albinos typically have pink eyes, but they can also have blue, gray, or even greenish eyes. There’s no way hunters are going to be able to tell eye color at a distance. This is an unworkable proposal—not to mention a very unpopular one. Most people don’t want either white or albino deer hunted.

As John Bates, co-author of White Deer, Ghosts of the Forest, says: “From a strictly biological perspective, there is no reason to protect white deer. That is true.  It’s also true, however, that from a strictly biological perspective, there’s no reason to hunt white deer either.“

Wisconsin (Wood, Marathon, and Winnebago Counties in particular), you have a phenomenal resource here.  Don’t ruin it.

The WCC Spring Hearing will begin April 12 this year with online voting lasting over three days. For more information on the hearings, click here. To see a copy of the questionnaire, click here (the white deer question is #14). The white deer need your support and input. They are too special to be viewed as just another item on an already very lengthy Wisconsin hunting menu.