What deer and wolf numbers in Bayfield County reveal about Wisconsin wildlife policy debates

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has released its 2023 figures for that season's deer hunt harvest, the state's estimated wolf population and depredation payments, illustrating the complex trends central to the politics of regulating a controversial and charismatic animal. By Nathan Denzin | Here & Now (PBS Wisconsin)

Deer hunting comes up a lot when people talk about wolves in Wisconsin. The harvest numbers for the 2023 gun season showing an annual dip in the number of deer taken home are likely to feed more conversations.

Only about 295,000 deer were harvested in Wisconsin in 2023, representing a more than 50% decline since 2000 when hunters bagged over 600,000 deer statewide. Over that same time period, wolves have more than quadrupled in number.

But despite a declining harvest, Wisconsin’s estimated post-hunt deer population has steadily grown over the past 15 years — in 2008 they numbered just over a million, and are 1.7 million strong in 2023. In comparison, the state’s estimated wolf population has grown from about 250 in 2000 to about 1,000 in 2023, though that number could be as high as 1,400.

Almost all of Wisconsin’s wolf population growth has come from packs in the northern half of the state. It’s in this area where deer harvest numbers have fallen the most, with most deer population growth observed in the southern half of the state.