Predator Project focuses on deer movement, health

Three years ago when the Southwest Wisconsin CWD, Deer, and Predator Project began, those connected and interested were eager for results, even anecdotal leanings.

But science usually doesn’t move like that; wait until all the data is in, scrutinize it, and then see if the general hypothesis has been supported, or not. Maybe the support will be something entirely different.

About 200 adult deer have been captured and collared each winter, with a fourth winter to begin December 2019. In addition, fawns (neonates) were hand-captured each spring and will be again this spring. Coyotes and bobcats were live-trapped and collared, too.

Of course many of the collared deer die each year, so the total number goes down, particularly during hunting season.

All these animals are being followed as long as they live, then the cause of death is determined, if possible. Did the deer die of disease, hunting, vehicle accident, predator catch or starvation, for example?

Other information is collected at the time of capture and when the deer dies, too. The data points on maps gives scientists the locations of the animals when the GPS collar sends it back to a database.

Here’s some information on one deer, captured when it was a day old, May 24, 2017, and then net captured Feb. 1, 2018, when the fawn collar was replaced by the adult deer collar.

The deer died in March 2019, but the cause of her death is still under investigation. One might guess starvation in this case, but wait for the necropsy to determine the official cause. Death could be the result of several causes, too.

A release to the landowner of data points where she spent the last year of her life looks like a bad case of measles in a 3.5-square-mile landscape, with most of the scores being in 1 square mile. She died less than a half-mile of her two capture sites, which were a few hundred yards apart.

The data will continue to fill computer files for years to come, with some samples still in cold storage until money, time and expertise become available.

Blood samples, chronic wasting disease tests, weight, likely age, general health, along with gender, and some fecal samples. Data points can be used to determine likely fawning of does and association of bucks with other deer.

Most collared deer will not have their entire life history on a computer, but those who do not still provide information in the study: What percent of the deer die, and at what age, from various causes?

Hunters who take possession of a collared deer also receive the data points of the animal’s whereabouts from capture (collaring) to death.

Jerry Davis can be reached at

Update on Ridgeland, Wisconsin Chicken Toss

We’re delighted that so many of you have responded to Wednesday’s Alert urging a polite call to three Dunn County, Wisconsin officials asking them to use their influence to stop the Ridgeland “chicken toss” in February.

Today’s Alert includes email addresses for these three Dunn County officials, plus links to our letter to District Attorney Andrea Nodolf, and very importantly, to the letters from University of California Emeritus Professor of Veterinary Medicine Nedim Buyukmihci, VMD in which Dr. Buyukmihci explains to the District Attorney and the County Supervisor why the chicken toss is inhumane and needs to be eliminated.

We understand that the offices are telling some callers that they’re not responsible for the chicken toss; however, these offices represent the county, including the village of Ridgeland. My conversation with County Supervisor Brian Johnson this week was cordial. While he did not say outright that he dislikes the chicken toss, he did not appear to support it either. He said it’s a sensitive “political” issue for those involved.

Whether we leave phone messages, send an email, or write a letter, we must always be courteous and keep the focus on the chickens, compassionate treatment, and humane education.

Thank you!

Karen Davis


— UPC Letter to Dunn County District Attorney, Jan. 25, 2019

— Letter from Nedim C. Buyukmihci, VMD to Dunn County Board Supervisor

— Letter from Nedim C. Buyukmihci, VMD to Dunn County District Attorney


Dunn County Officials


Urge Ridgeland, Wisconsin Officials to Stop Chicken Toss

Chicken being tossed from the roof of a building into a crowd of people.

United Poultry Concerns is joining Wisconsin-based Alliance for Animals again this year in politely urging the village of Ridgeland in Dunn County, Wisconsin to cancel the “Chicken Toss” in February (most likely Saturday, Feb. 16th since it is always held in mid-February although we could not confirm the date as yet).

The chicken toss consists of throwing many chickens, one or two at a time, up in the air from a roof. Crowds scramble to grab the birds as they fall to the ground. The chickens huddle together, freezing and fearful, in crates and bags waiting to be thrown by participants who consider this activity fun.

There is no similarity between a chicken being pulled from a container and thrown roughly up in the air from a roof in the midst of a screaming mob, and a chicken fluttering voluntarily to the ground from a perch in a quiet place.

What Can I Do?

Please call these Dunn County officials, and politely urge them to prohibit the “chicken toss” this year. Whether you reach a live person or a recording, leave a brief, clear, and respectful message expressing your concern for the chickens: their fear and possible injury and the frigid weather.


Thank you for taking action for these birds.
– United Poultry Concerns

Crews rescue lost hunter in Eldorado Marsh


ELDORADO – On Sunday crews rescued a hunter from the Eldorado Marsh after he repeatedly fell through the ice into thigh-deep marsh water and became disoriented, authorities said.

The Fond du Lac County Sheriff’s Office said dispatchers received a 911 call from the hunter, a 38-year-old Fond du Lac man, around 5:45 p.m. He had finished hunting for the evening and was lost and cold.

Dispatchers pinpointed his location in a patch of cattails. Recent high temperatures thawed the ice there, so crews could not easily walk onto the ice to reach him.

Law enforcement drove a utility vehicle into the icy-watery mix and rescued the man within an hour, the sheriff’s office said. They brought him to a waiting ambulance, and paramedics treated him at the scene.

Eldorado Fire Department supplied the utility vehicle while Ripon Fire Department contributed a drone to the rescue effort.

An Increase In the Bear Population Has Led to Calls for Legal Hunts. But Is That Really Safer?

I saw my first bear this summer. I was working from home in New Fairfield, a small town on the New York border in northern Fairfield County, when my normally quiet, 34-pound labradoodle retriever transformed into full beast mode. She flung her paws against the window, accenting furious barks with deep, guttural growls, unlike any sound I’d heard her make before.

Walking onto my front porch, I saw a large black bear, lazily picking through the spoils of my garbage can, which he — I learned later this bear was probably male — had previously knocked over and opened.

I moved back into the house, flinging the door shut behind me. A moment later, prompted by my wife — whose motives I’m only now beginning to suspect — I ventured out again, to do what so many of us do when we encounter one of the Northeast’s most powerful predators: take a photo. As my camera clicked, the bear looked up from his food. Our eyes met.

2018 might be the year of the bear in Connecticut. Bear numbers swelled to about 800, according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, a population size not seen here in more than 150 years. Reported bear incidents also reached all-time highs, with more than 7,850 sightings reported to DEEP between October 2017 and September of this year.

In August, a bear walked through the automatic doors of a Bristol liquor store, and by October there were at least 25 reported instances of bears entering Connecticut homes this year. That is nearly twice the 2017 full-year total of 13 bear home entries, and far more than the yearly average of about six.

Bears have been seen in about 140 of Connecticut’s 169 towns and cities. They are found in greatest numbers in Litchfield County, western Hartford County and the northern portions of both Fairfield and New Haven counties. However, they are moving south in Fairfield and New Haven counties, and have been spotted more frequently east of the Connecticut River, though there are no permanent bear establishments there as of yet. DEEP estimates Connecticut can support about 3,000 bears.

“As the population continues to grow and expand you will see them push into new territory,” says Chris Collibee, DEEP spokesman.

You will also likely see new proposals to legalize the limited hunting of bears, which is currently illegal in the state. “We’re the only state in New England without a bear hunt,” Collibee says.

Earlier this year, DEEP supported legislative efforts to allow for a limited bear hunt in Litchfield County. The proposal was voted down by the Legislature’s Environment Committee 21-8. As with similar proposals in the past, it met with fierce resistance from animal rights and environmental groups including the Connecticut chapter of the Sierra Club and Darien-based Friends of Animals, whose members point to statistics showing many more people die from hunting accidents than from bear attacks.


UCONN wildlife expert Dr. Tracy Rittenhouse with an adult bear under study, briefly tranquilized by state DEEP staff while a GPS collar was changed before the bear and family were returned to the wild.jpg

UConn wildlife expert Tracy Rittenhouse with an adult bear under study. The bear was briefly tranquilized by state DEEP staff while a GPS collar was changed before the bear and its family were returned to the wild.

In testimony submitted in March, DEEP Commissioner Robert Klee said, “It is the opinion of our wildlife biologists that bear hunting — with prudent limitations — is consistent with best practices for wildlife management in Connecticut.”

With a new governor scheduled to take office, it is unclear what the state’s position on bear hunts will be going forward, but representatives of groups on both sides of the issue have stances that remain unchanged.

The Coalition of Connecticut Sportsmen, a state advocacy organization dedicated to protecting hunting and fishing rights as well as gun rights, has also lobbied the legislature in support of a bear hunt. Bob Crook, executive director of the organization, says that it is expensive for DEEP to deal with problem bears by catching or euthanizing them. “A better, more effective way of getting the population down is to allow hunting,” he says, noting there is interest in hunting bears from Connecticut hunters who would eat the meat and have the hide and fur tanned.

“Maybe somebody has to be killed by one of these bears before we take anything seriously,” he says.

Fran Silverman, communications director of Friends of Animals, which supports a vegan lifestyle, disagrees with Crook’s assessment of the risk. She says a bear hunt is more of a threat than that posed by bears, as hunting accidents are far more common than bear attacks. “In Connecticut, between 2011 and 2016, there’s been 13 accidents and one hunting fatality, and zero bear fatalities,” she says. Silverman adds that from 1982, around when bears first returned to Connecticut, up until 2016 there were 114 hunting accidents and 13 fatalities, while no one was killed by bears over the same time period.

Though there are attacks on livestock and pets each year in Connecticut, bear attacks on humans are exceedingly rare. In 2017, a bear was euthanized after swiping at a woman walking her dog in a Simsbury park, but Collibee from DEEP says, “We’ve never had an overly significant incident of a bear attacking a human, at least in recent memory.”

The bear population in Connecticut was nonexistent by the mid-1800s thanks to aggressive hunting and widespread deforestation to make room for farmland. Black bears survived in western Massachusetts, and after forests returned to much of Connecticut, they began traveling back in the 1980s. Males range from 150 to 450 pounds, and though they are not classified as true hibernators, their body temperature is lowered and heart rate slows during denning periods, generally between late November and mid-March in Connecticut. They commonly den under fallen trees or in brush piles, but varied sites are used including rocky ledges. While denning, they don’t eat, defecate or urinate, but will usually wake up when disturbed. Though bears are more active between March and November, Collibee says, “it is not unusual to see the occasional bear during the winter months.”

Bears have an excellent sense of smell and will seek out garbage and other food left outside. Though generally shy, and fearful of humans, according to DEEP’s fact sheet, “if they regularly find food near houses and areas of human activity, they can lose their fear of humans.”

Bear-hunt proponents believe a hunt would help instill a healthy fear of humans in more bears. Tracy Rittenhouse, a professor of wildlife ecology in UConn’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, says, “The scientific literature provides good evidence for other wildlife species changing their behavior in response to hunting,” but adds, “I think the evidence in the scientific literature specific to black bears just hasn’t been collected.”

In 2017, Rittenhouse published research showing that the largest bear populations in Connecticut were found on the fringes of suburban areas, rather than in rural areas. These “exurban areas” have woodlands as well as scattered houses, offering bears garbage- and bird feeder-foraging opportunities. More recently, Rittenhouse and colleagues looked at how bears living in low-density neighborhoods navigated through them. Analyzing data from GPS monitors on bear collars in currently unpublished research, they found that as bears travel across the state, on average, they avoid houses and roads, but “there are some [bears] that move through that neighborhood moving almost toward houses and toward roads.”

Rittenhouse says the behavior observed in both studies is most likely not behavior only exhibited by Connecticut bears.

“I’ve not seen anything here in Connecticut that’s completely different than bears in New York or Massachusetts,” says Rittenhouse, who will speak about the increased sightings of bears and other large mammals at an event of the Aspetuck Land Trust on Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Church in Westport. “I think what’s unique about Connecticut is that we have [a lot of neighborhoods with] this housing density that typifies exurban housing development. … What our research has shown is that it’s a housing density that bears really like, too.”


A black bear spotted in New Fairfield on July 21, 2018.

Encounters between homeowners and bears are becoming more common, especially around homes in wooded areas, as the bear population increases and spreads across the state. Our writer found this out firsthand when he discovered this bear going through his garbage. He has since learned to secure his trash to discourage foraging — and not to go outside to get a better picture of the bear.

The bear that visited my house and feasted on my garbage was huge. As cute as he looks in pictures, in real life he was terrifying. My wife hasn’t walked the dog at night since his appearance, and every time my dog barks, I go into high alert, scanning the perimeter of the lawn from my windows.

Even so, it would be heartbreaking to see this bear hunted and killed. While not everyone agrees with that sentiment, people on both sides of the bear hunt issue do agree that those of us who live in neighborhoods near bear populations need to take more steps to prevent encounters. These include keeping garbage in a shed or garage, not leaving bird feeders out from March till late November and storing grills inside. Bear sightings can be reported to DEEP through its website at Those requiring immediate assistance with a bear should call DEEP’s 24-hour hotline at 860-424-3333.

I’ve heard the saying that “a fed bear is a dead bear,” the notion that feeding a bear, whether intentionally or unintentionally, lures them into more interactions with humans and increases the odds they will end up being euthanized. I took the saying to heart, moving my garbage indoors and attempting to clean my property of anything that might tempt the bear in the future. Bears frequently return to places where they’ve found food in the past, and a few weeks after my initial meeting, my dog once more sprung into beast mode. This time I knew the signs. Looking out the window, I watched as the bear walked down my driveway and past where the garbage used to be. Finding nothing, he kept walking instead of hanging out again. Thankfully, I haven’t seen him since.

Fatal hunting accident in Green Lake County after high winds capsize boat

MARQUETTE, Wis. (AP) – A man has died after his duck-hunting boat capsized in high winds on the Fox River.

The Green Lake County Sheriff’s Office says authorities searched for the 52-year-old Princeton man near Puckaway Lake in the Town of Marquette and found his body in the water around 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Authorities say the man was duck hunting with a Berlin man and a dog when high winds overturned the boat and threw the men into the water.

The Berlin man made it to shore with the dog and called 911.

The Oshkosh Northwestern reports the sheriff’s office will release the victim’s name after notifying family members.

As Snow Disappears, A Family of Dogsled Racers in Wisconsin Can’t Agree Why

A father and daughter have been running sled dogs for more than 25 years. It’s easier for them to talk dogs than politics, weather than climate.

A version of this story and video were published by The New Yorker.

As dog musher Mel Omernick slipped nylon harnesses over her Alaskan huskies’ lithe bodies, the dogs were already straining with forward momentum. Pogo pressed her paws into the ground below, the sound of her yelps joining with those of the three other dogs that Mel and her husband, Keith, were hooking up to their tuglines. The cries melded with the barking of a hundred other dogs at the Redpaws Dirty Dog Dryland Derby in northern Wisconsin.

It was the first weekend of November, and race participants had come from all over Wisconsin and neighboring states, and as far away as New Hampshire and Quebec, to run their dogs. All year, they had fed and watered and trained and cleaned up after their teams, awaiting the moment they could let their dogs loose across the starting line.

Now the race weekend had finally arrived, though it had gotten off to a rocky start. Once again, the weather was to blame.

Gleason, Wisconsin, locator map

Northern Wisconsin is still a frigid place come winter. But as the state has warmed, the certainty of snow gradually vanished, leaving the traditional winter dogsledding races frequently cancelled for lack of good powder. Organizers responded by adapting the sport itself, from dogsledding to “dryland” racing.

The Dirty Dog Derby was the first of its kind in the area, started in 2006 to extend the racing season into spring and fall so that mushers like Mel and Keith could have more chances to compete, and dogs like Pogo more chances to run. Swapping out sleds, dogs instead pull mushers on unmotorized rigs or a cart with four to 10 dogs or modified bicycles (bikejoring) pulled by two dogs: in some cases, a single musher simply lashes herself by bungee cord to a single dog and runs behind him in an event called canicross. Dryland variations tend to be shorter events, sprints of a few miles instead of the hundreds of miles of the iconic long-distance sled races often associated with the sport.

With snow becoming less reliable, many sled dog racers have turned to dryland racing, with rigs on wheels replacing traditional sleds. Credit: Meera Subramanian

With snow becoming less reliable, many dogsled racers have turned to dryland racing, with rigs on wheels replacing traditional sleds. Credit: Meera Subramanian

In the weeks before their race, the Dirty Dog organizers had been worried they’d have to cancel it if the warm weather they were experiencing into late October—still hitting 70 on some days—continued. Since dogs can’t sweat—the only means they have to release heat from their bodies is through their tongues and the pads of their paws—mushers won’t run their dogs if there’s a risk they’ll get “fried” by overheating.

But by the time the derby arrived on Nov. 4, race organizers were pining for a little heat. The race grounds—and the carefully groomed trails—were blanketed in nearly three inches of snow. The day’s races were cancelled. Mushers kept their spirits up but weren’t finding much humor in the irony: a dryland race, the sport’s creative solution to a paucity of snowfall, cancelled because of snow. Some mushers loaded up their trailers with their pent-up dogs and made their way back home, while others—usually those who had traveled greater distances—hung around, eating chili from the Dirty Dog Diner set up in the open-air lodge and taking shifts by the fireplace as they waited to see if the weather would change.

By the second day, the snow had melted just enough to turn the trails into a muddy, but navigable, quagmire. When the organizers announced early Sunday morning that the race was on, the grounds erupted in excitement and movement. Mel and Keith headed to their truck to get the team hooked up, and soon the dogs were pulling on their lines, amped to do what they seemed born to do: run.

Dogsledding, Without the Sleds

Today, dogsledding is undergoing a transformation. Or threat, depending on your viewpoint.

The first hit came with the advent of snowmobiles in the 1960s, when dogsledding began slipping away as the standard form of transportation for many of the world’s northernmost inhabitants. Instead it became recreational, one of those activities that meld sport, hobby and lifestyle into one expensive, obsessive pastime.

Jan Bootz-Dittmar has been racing dogsleds for four decades and has several sponsors. She took up dryland racing, too, but finds the loss of reliably snowy winters frustrating. Credit: Meera Subramanian/InsideClimate News

Champion sprint musher Jan Bootz-Dittmar has been racing dogsleds for four decades and has several sponsors. She took up dryland racing, but finds the loss of reliably snowy winters frustrating. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Now the ideal image of dogs, humans and a sled careening silently across snow is facing a new challenge as the climate warms and the weather weirds. The Iditarod, a thousand-mile race across Alaska that is the most famous of sled dog races, had to be rerouted two of the last three years as its organizers chased snow-covered terrain. In Wisconsin, since 2001, about one-third of the sled races failed to happen, primarily because of lack of snow.

“I definitely see a trend where things are not like they used to be,” said Jan Bootz-Dittmar, a champion sprint musher on snow and dry land who’s been running dogs for 40 years. Last year, insufficient snowfall caused half of the snow races in Wisconsin to be cancelled.

“That affects me,” she said in the cafe as she munched on potato chips in lieu of lunch, “and it pisses me off.”

The Accidental Life

Mel races drylands, but skijoring is what she loves most: the quiet “shwooosh shwooosh” of her skis gliding through a snow-silenced world but for the sound of her dog’s movement.

She lives in Lincoln County, in north-central Wisconsin, and we were talking in the kitchen of the home she and Keith share, a long green metal building divided into a utilitarian shop and a capacious, wood-ceilinged living space with a wall of windows looking out upon a stand of trees. Her parents’ home lies just beyond. Mel, 40, sees both of her parents nearly daily, but when it comes to dogsledding, she’s closer to her father, Ron Behm, who is approaching 70. The kennel of Alaskan huskies and hounds that was once Ron’s is now cared for by Mel and Keith, and they all train the dogs together.

The length of the frost-free season has increased by as much as three weeks in some parts of Wisconsin since 1971, the state's assistant climatologist said. Credit: Meera Subramanian

The frequency of winter freezes that plunged the thermometer below average has been declining in Wisconsin since the 1980s, and the sport has had to change with the climate. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Father and daughter have been running sled dogs for more than 25 years, since they entered the sport by an accident of canine lust. Mel was still in junior high when the neighbor’s Malamute wandered over and found their Labrador mix, which was Ron’s hunting dog. One lone pup was the result, and they kept him and named him Tiny. He was no bird dog, but Mel and her three siblings kept him running all the time. When the neighbor’s dog got loose again the next year and a litter of four was born, the Behm kids had a team. The family was friends with Jan Bootz-Dittmar, who gave them some harnesses to try out.

Mel and her two younger brothers hooked up Tiny and the team to their red Radio Flyer wagon, and the boys would take turns riding while Mel, who was a gymnast at the time and wanted the exercise, darted in front, leading the dog. As the dogs grew, they swapped out the wagon with an old lawn mower, engine removed. Mel’s older sister Ginnie, daunted by the speed, would cheer them on, snapping photographs. Ron mowed a path through the grass so the children could holler “gee!” for right and “haw!” for left as the dogs learned commands.

Mel’s brother Adam was the first to enter a formal dogsledding race, with Ron joining him a few years later. By the time she was in college, Mel had quit gymnastics and started racing, too. Mel’s mother, Gail, stitched harnesses and kept the mushers supplied with baked goods and the fresh perch she caught while ice fishing, her preferred sport.

Dynamics of Differing

Despite all this family togetherness, there was one crucial split in the Behm household: politics.

At first, Mel told me, she was a Republican because her father was. “I didn’t pay attention to politics,” she said. But that changed when she became an emergency room nurse. Working 12-hour shifts with people in crisis, she suddenly realized that “some of the decisions that politicians were making were affecting my patients.”

She also saw how not just politics but also science affected them, from the medicines she could offer them to how their bodies responded. She saw science in her sport, too, where the principles of genetics were used to breed dogs for speed, endurance and tougher paws.

The family's kennel has 19 dogs, a mix of Alaskan huskies and hounds trained by Mel Omernick; her husband, Keith; and her father, Ron Behm. Credit: Meera Subramanian

The length of the frost-free season has increased by as much as three weeks in some parts of Wisconsin since 1971, the state’s assistant climatologist said. Credit: Meera Subramanian

“I love science,” she said, “and I believe in evolution.” Evolution was one of the science-based subjects she’d argued with her dad about most fiercely when she was in college. “I feel like we’re an example of it, and our sled dogs are too. So, it’s logical. It just makes sense … our planet is changing.”

These were not conversations Mel and Ron had easily, or often. Usually they just avoided politics—and science—altogether, focusing on the thing that bound them, their love of dogs and dogsledding, their family life.

Credit: Meera Subramanian

The world of dog mushers draws racers and trainers from across the political spectrum, and there’s a hesitation to talk about potentially divisive issues, such as climate change. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Within the contained world of dog mushers, there’s a similar hesitation to talk about potentially divisive issues. The entire political spectrum finds representation at the Dirty Dog Dryland Derby, from the young women showing up in a Prius with two dogs tucked in back, to the Trump supporter in a trailer emblazoned with “To the victor the spoils.” But as with Mel and her father, conversations among the mushers veer away from the political, to the point that many mushers don’t even know each other’s leanings or affiliations. Better to talk dogs than politics, and weather before climate. Even Ron, once I pressed him, was adamant that he was a “constitutionalist,” not a Republican. That was a distinction even his own daughter didn’t know.

Just a Blade of Grass

The second weekend in November, a second dryland derby was scheduled. Ron was slated to be a race marshal for that one, known as the Willow Springs Round Barn Fall Rally, and Keith was scheduled to compete; Mel planned to swing by after an all-night ER shift. But the skies stayed heavy most of the week, and, looking at the forecast of more snow, organizers cancelled the race by Tuesday night.

With his weekend freed up, Ron was willing to continue a conversation we’d started earlier in the week about what was happening to the climate and the sport he and his daughter both loved. Instead of race marshaling, he joined me at Mel’s house, laying down his coyote fur cap upon the kitchen table as Mel fixed coffee after her 12-hour shift.

While Mel sees the climate changing around her, her father, Ron Behm, is skeptical of any human role and leans on counter-arguments that have scientists have considered but dismissed as a major drivers of change. Credit: Meera Subramanian

While Mel Omernick sees the climate changing around her, her father, Ron Behm, is skeptical of any human role in climate change and leans on counter-arguments that scientists say aren’t major drivers of the changes. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Sitting side by side, Mel and Ron are two generations delighted in the world. Ron is still fit from his 30 years as a mail carrier, from which he retired in 2012; he now devotes himself to the Wisconsin Trailblazers race dog club, the Lions and a one-acre market garden that he tends with his wife. His white beard is trimmed, and Mel’s blonde hair is cut in a bob that falls in soft curls. They both default to easy smiles, even when their viewpoints clash.

Which they do, when it comes to climate change.

Finding Middle Ground

Mel feels that the winters of her youth are gone. Where was ice skating at Thanksgiving, like she remembers from her grandma’s when she was a kid?

“It always seemed harsh in the winter,” she said. But Ron had an explanation that had nothing to do with climate change. A trick of perception, he said as Mel listened respectfully, since in those days there was none of the high-tech clothing and efficient snow plows of today. He likened it to other mythic stories about one’s childhood, à la walking to school, uphill, both ways. “Probably that was a part of it,” Mel responded, nodding thoughtfully, both of them disagreeing in a way that was unfailingly polite.

There are 19 dogs out in the kennel, but six are allowed in the house, and they periodically came up to Mel and Ron, who stroked their heads. One dog took a brief interest in Ron’s coyote-skin hat—it’s roadkill, Ron told me—before venturing off again.

“One thing about weather,” Ron said, “we can all comment about it, but we can’t change it.” He sees climate changes as cyclical, pointing to the fact that long before humans were contributing any sort of emissions to the atmosphere, the state had “gone through three major warming trends, and also, three major freezing trends.” He mentioned the nearby Ice Age Trail that marks the edge of the last glaciation, 10,000 years ago.

The length of the frost-free season has increased by as much as three weeks in some parts of Wisconsin since 1971, the state's assistant climatologist said. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Dogsledding in Wisconsin has been changing for other reasons as well, including the cost of the sport and loss of sponsorship. Credit: Meera Subramanian

But even as he referred to deep time and geological history, Ron expressed his strong skepticism of science. He trusts the Old Farmer’s Almanac before the weather report. Weather is cyclical, he insisted, listing off a catalog of counter-arguments to climate science that I’ve heard around the country, including from many of the Dirty Dog mushers. The current warming can be attributed to volcanoes, they’ve told me. And sunspots. And solar winds. And the media doesn’t report these things. None acknowledged that climate scientists account for these variables in their studies and readily accept the planet’s natural climate fluctuations.

What the planet has not seen is as rapid a rise in temperatures, predicted to become warmer than they’ve been for millions of years, long before humans settled into their spaces and their sports.

“I still don’t believe that man has been given the ability, no matter how proud they think of themselves, to completely control something that they’re only on its surface for a very short time,” Ron told me.  “We’re here, a blade-of-grass scenario,” meaning that there might be seven billion of us, but we simply cannot have the impact that climate scientists are saying we have.

But while Mel politely agreed with her father that her recollection of colder winters in the past might be a trick of the mind, the truth is, data backs up her belief that Wisconsin winters are objectively milder than they used to be.

Credit: Meera SubramanianMel Omernick enjoys bikejoring with her race dogs when there isn't enough snow to ski with them. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Mel Omernick enjoys bikejoring with her race dogs when there isn’t enough snow to ski with them. She also works as an emergency room nurse, where she sees how politics and science affect all of our lives. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Starting in the 1980s, the frequency of winter freezes that plunged the thermometer below average was declining. By the mid-1990s, when Ron and his kids were running with the Radio Flyer and Tiny’s team, the cold autumnal spikes had nearly vanished. Ed Hopkins, Wisconsin’s assistant state climatologist, told me that winters continue to be highly variable, with lots of snow some years and bare ground others, but he recently tallied up the length of the frost-free season since 1971 and found that in some parts of the state, it’s increased by as much as three weeks.

And Now, a Word from …

Dogsledding in Wisconsin has been changing for the past two decades for reasons aside from weather: the cost of dog food, the difficulty of finding long trail systems unimpeded by development or liability-averse landowners, the cost of fuel for the trucks to haul large teams. And one additional, significant change: the loss of sponsorship. It was sponsorship that had been keeping the races afloat, but sponsors started falling away as early as the late 1990s—often for weather-related reasons.

Dryland races involve plenty of mud, as Jan Bootz-Dittmar is evidence of after a race. Credit: Meera Subramanian/InsideClimate News

Dryland races involve plenty of mud, as Jan Bootz-Dittmar is evidence of after a race. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Ron spoke of one sponsor, the North Star Mohican Casino Resort over in Bowler, Wisconsin, that sponsored a dogsled race with a huge purse. “Then someone says … we can make more money with a polka band,” he said. “Bowler started to bring in live entertainment at the casino, instead of doing the race.”

How infinitely appealing an indoor, climate-controlled event must be for a sponsor. The complete opposite of the iffy one-day mudfest that ended up being the Dirty Dog Derby this year.

“This is a weather sport,” Ron said. “Your sponsors are expecting this much viewing of their product name, and if the weather is not conducive to that, you don’t get the viewership.”

“So if it’s too cold, too windy, rainy,” Mel continued, their conversation fluidly moving between them, “there are no spectators.”

The prizes for the long-distance snow sled races can still be substantial—the Iditarod winner takes home $75,000—but as the purses have shrunk, sprint mushers are lucky if they win enough for gas money home.

Credit: Meera Subramanian

Traditional racing sleds hang on a shop wall near the kennels. Credit: Meera Subramanian

The move from dogsledding to dryland racing to casino polkas is enough to make you wonder if we’re doomed to become an indoor nation, seeking collective escape from an unpredictable world.

Many sports are suffering from the extremes in weather. Just as the sled dogs have their window where they can comfortably and safely compete, so do we two-legged athletes. It’s difficult to play tennis when it’s so hot your sneakers are melting on the court or you start hallucinating that you’ve seen Snoopy, as happened at the Australian Open a couple of years back. A study by the University of Waterloo’s Interdisciplinary Center on Climate Change found that, unless carbon use plummets soon, a third of past Winter Olympics cities will be unable to host the event in the future because they won’t get cold enough. Winter recreation sports are estimated to be a $12 billion industry in the country.

Even snowless races still draw young dog sled racers excited for the thrill of the sport. Credit: Meera Subramanian/InsideClimate News

Even snowless tracks still draw young dogsled racers excited by the thrill of the sport. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Loss of sponsorship and other factors are contributing to the decline in snow mushing in Wisconsin, but the greatest factor seems to be climate change. How long can the sport survive when the specter of uncertain weather is added to all the others? What is the fate of this sport—a healthy, life-affirming sport that people play instead of watch, that involves working in concert with animals instead of against them? Did the founders of the Iditarod think about the double meaning of their tag line, the “Last Great Race on Earth”?

When there isn't enough snow for a sled but too much for a dryland racing cart, Mel and Keith Omernick runs the dogs with an ATV, its motor running. Credit: Meera Subramanian

When there isn’t enough snow for a sled but too much for a dryland cart, Mel and Keith Omernick take the dogs out with an ATV. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Mel and Ron and I had talked enough. There were dogs outside, eager in waiting. Ron donned his coyote fur hat, its tail draped between his shoulder blades as the rest of it blended with the color and cut of his beard. Mel slipped on her Carhartt jacket and we headed out to the kennel where Keith had been setting out the lines to run the dogs with an ATV. It was too snowy for a cart and not snowy enough for a sled, so a motor would have to suffice. The dogs were rowdy with expectation, fervent to bound through the whitened forest, past Ron and Gail’s garden, so recently put to bed, past the neat lines of the neighbor’s fields, crisp in sepia tones.

“I love to watch them run, and run with them,” Mel had said expectantly before we headed out. “To have them pull me and to be part of that team. And we’re out there in nature, whether it’s a beautiful sunny day, 20 below, raining, icing. We’re appreciating what the planet has given us, and God’s blessings that we’re healthy enough to do this.”

She was proving what her father had told me earlier about dog racing. “Nostalgia,” Ron had said, “is a big part of this sport.”

Top photo: Mel Omernick races dogsleds in Wisconsin, but lately the winter races have shiftrf to dirt tracks as the winter snow becomes less reliable. Credit: Meera Subramanian

Hunting and politics, especially today’s version, never mix well


No modern political party has injected politics into Wisconsin’s hunting and wildlife-management programs like Republicans during Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, and yet several GOP leaders in key natural-resources positions have feeble credentials as license-buying, game-harvesting hunters.

Harsh? Not really. When Walker ran for governor in 2010, he touted “Scott’s Plan” for deer hunting. He promised voters he would appoint a “deer trustee” to revise the state’s deer hunting program, and told crowds, “Like most sportsmen, I’m tired of sitting in a deer stand all day and not seeing any deer.”

During the 2010 and 2014 races, as well as the recall election in 2012, “Sportsmen for Walker” signs were common statewide.

The GOP even institutionalized litmus tests for the outdoors. After taking office in 2011, Walker and his party passed Act 149, which requires at least three members of the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board to have held a hunting, fishing or trapping license in at least seven of the 10 years before they were nominated to serve. That policy took effect in May 2017 for the NRB, which sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources.

You’d think folks setting such standards would have impeccable qualifications themselves. But an open-records review of license purchases and game-registration files shows Walker himself wouldn’t have qualified for one of those license-based NRB seats until three years ago. He didn’t buy his first hunting license until March 2007, and didn’t fish until buying his first all-inclusive conservation patron license in March 2010.

RELATED:Following in Aldo Leopold’s footsteps along the Rio Grande

That standard also would have disqualified Cathy Stepp, who served as Walker’s DNR secretary from January 2011 through August 2017. Stepp didn’t buy a hunting, fishing or trapping license from 2003 through 2010. She then bought a fishing license, and hunting licenses for deer, turkeys and geese in March 2011, roughly two months after taking control of the agency the NRB oversees.

Unlike Walker – who has yet to register a deer in Wisconsin despite being licensed to do so every year from 2007 through 2017 – Stepp shot deer three straight years from 2011 to 2013. She added a turkey to her kills in May 2016.

Although Walker and Stepp would now qualify for any NRB seat, Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, does not. Tiffany, chairman of the Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry, has owned hunting or fishing licenses only five times since 2004. He bought no licenses from 2009 through 2014, and none in 2017.

And even though only two of Tiffany’s licenses included deer hunting privileges, he felt qualified to lead efforts to eliminate earn-a-buck rules and October gun-deer hunts statewide in 2011. Earlier this year, he also helped relax baiting-feeding bans for deer hunting.

Even so, one of Tiffany’s cheerleaders is Mukwonago’s Greg Kazmierski, who’s been widely regarded by DNR staff as Wisconsin’s true “deer czar” since Gov. Walker appointed him to the NRB in 2011. “Kaz” is credited with getting the governor to appoint Texas’ James Kroll as Wisconsin’s deer trustee in 2012, and then rewriting deer regulations to his liking once Kroll went home.

Still, no one can look at Kaz’s license-buying history and lump him in with Stepp and Walker as a politically expedient deer hunter. He’s registered seven deer in 11 seasons since 2007, and bought gun and archery deer licenses annually since the state began tracking sales electronically in 1999.

But Kaz is no “hunting and fishing fool” – a compliment among outdoors-folks. He hasn’t bought a turkey license since 2005 or a small-game license since 2002, and never fished from 2001 through 2012. He even qualified for a $5 first-timer’s fishing license in 2013, but hasn’t fished since.

Current DNR Secretary Daniel Meyer, who replaced Stepp in September, has more diverse outdoors interests. Judging by his license purchases, Meyer routinely fishes. He also regularly hunts small game, including waterfowl and wild turkeys, but seems more casual about deer. Meyer bought an archery-deer license in 2003, never registered a deer from 2007 through 2016, and didn’t buy a gun-deer license in 2005, 2006, 2008, 2015 and 2016. However, Meyer killed a deer in November.

That brings us to Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage. Given the modest overall credentials of the GOP’s aforementioned outdoors team, one might mistakenly think Kleefisch is trying to single-handedly boost the party’s hunting credibility.

He’s kept his hunting knife bloody since buying his first small-game license in 2003 and his first deer license in 2004. I say that with respect. Since the DNR began tracking individual harvest data on whitetails, wild turkeys and Canada geese in 2007, Kleefisch has registered 19 deer, 39 turkeys and 236 geese. Those aren’t misprints.

Further, by my unofficial tally, Kleefisch has spent $2,577 on tags, licenses and associated fees since 1999. Few of his fellow legislators can rival such numbers.

Unfortunately, Kleefisch likely leads the Legislature in game violations, too. The DNR cited him in 2013 for registering a deer too late, and cited him again in 2016 for overbagging turkeys when accidentally killing two with one shot. He also received three warnings for previous turkey- and goose-hunting violations.

One thing these GOP leaders seldom do, however, is donate extra money to state-run conservation efforts such as the Cherish Wisconsin Outdoors Fund, venison and turkey processing fund, or the endangered species or aquatic invasive species programs. Kazmierski donated $10 to Cherish Wisconsin in 2016. Walker gave $10 to general fish and wildlife funding in 2011; and twice contributed to venison processing, giving $1 in 2009 and $20 in 2010. The rest combined to give $0.

And just so you know, DNR records credit me with 12 deer registrations since 2007; 18 straight years of buying a patron’s license and extra tags for $2,602.50; and $49 in donations to the venison processing, fish and wildlife, Cherish Wisconsin and aquatic invasive species programs.

Does any of that make me special? Of course not. But I’m also not the one who uses hunting for political gain.

I’m just reporting it.

Hunters and severe winters — not wolves — key to Wisconsin’s deer numbers


When it comes to gray wolves and white-tailed deer, there are enough deep-seated beliefs to fill the Dells of the Wisconsin River.

Some of them, like many of the acts in the nearby town, are based more on fiction than fact.—

Here’s one: The wolves are killing all the deer in northern Wisconsin.

It’s not a new refrain, but it’s one I continue to hear from some of my hunting colleagues each year.

Now in late summer 2017, as bucks begin to lose their velvet and wolf pups start to venture out more with adults, conditions are ripe to discuss trends in both species.

In a word, both are “up.”

There are 480,273 deer in the 18-county northern forest management zone, according to the 2017 pre-hunt population estimate from the Department of Natural Resources.

The 2017 number represents an 18% year-over-year increase.

The population of wolves, as you may know, is at an all-time high in Wisconsin. The DNR in June reported a record high of at least 925 wolves, most of which are in northern Wisconsin.

The latest wolf report represents a 6% increase from 2015-’16 and a 24% rise from 2014-’15.

So the two iconic wildlife species have been increasing in number across Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Why? And how can it be? If wolves are at an all-time high – and if they “eat all the deer” – shouldn’t the deer herd at least be falling?

A look at the data and management related to each species can be illuminating.

The wolf population has increased largely due to a December 2014 federal judge’s decision that placed the western Great Lakes population under protections of the Endangered Species Act. The ruling has prevented state officials from holding public hunting and trapping seasons or using other lethal means to manage the species.

Deer have been increasing partly due to protection, too. For the last several years, the number of antlerless deer permits has been significantly reduced in northern units. Some counties have allowed zero.

With more female deer allowed to live and reproduce, the population assumed an upward trajectory.

Mother Nature is the other primary factor allowing deer herd growth in the north. The last three years have been marked by “soft” winters, including the fourth (2015-’16) and sixth (2016-’17) mildest on record since 1960, according to the DNR’s Winter Severity Index.

In contrast, two very rough winters took a toll on the deer herd in 2011-’12 and 2012-’13. The 2011-’12 winter was the third most severe on record; the following year was especially tough on deer since winter conditions lasted into May.

The milder winters have been reflected in recent years in higher fawn-doe ratios and a higher proportion of yearling bucks with forked antlers, according to DNR big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang.

Another factor – habitat – likely has improved marginally in northern Wisconsin in recent years due to some changes in forestry practices. But it’s harder to quantify and likely takes longer to show its effects on the deer herd.

I find the status of both species particularly interesting now, as wolf numbers have climbed to a record high.

Wolves obviously eat deer. According to most experts, an adult wolf will consume the equivalent of 20 adult-sized deer annually.

But when compared to other sources of deer mortality in Wisconsin, wolves rank down the list.

I ran the numbers and trends past David Mech, senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn. Mech has studied wolves for 59 years and is considered an expert on the species and its effect on plant and animal communities.

“Under these current Wisconsin regulations and conditions, wolves are apparently not a competitor, or aren’t really having that much of an impact (on deer),” Mech said.

The leading causes of deer mortality in the state, as Wisconsin wildlife managers have long said, are human hunters and severe winters.

A 2009 DNR document ranked the deer kill in Wisconsin’s northern and central forest regions this way: 122,000 deer killed by hunters (bow and gun), about 50,000 due to winter stress (the range could vary widely), 33,000 to black bears, 16,000 to coyotes, 13,000 to motor vehicles, 13,000 to wolves and 6,000 to bobcats.

The trends over the last few years in northern Wisconsin are clear.

When I was in Bayfield and Sawyer counties in May for the Governors Fishing Opener, I counted 72 deer on an evening drive from Cable to Hayward.

The conditions reminded me of the plethora of deer I used to see in the area in the mid to late 1990s.

Wolves are up in number. Deer are too.

Humans and Mother Nature have far more control over deer populations than wolves ever will.

I’m hoping my hunting buddies read this. But as always, I’ll be happy to tell them in person.

Pass it along to your friends, too.

As we move forward with management plans on both species, it’s important to bring as many facts to the debate as possible.

Man dies in Sauk County hunting accident

TOWN OF GREENFIELD, Wis. (WMTV) — A Milwaukee man is dead after a hunting accident in Sauk County.

The Sauk County Sheriff’s Office said they received a call around 10:35 a.m. on Sunday for a hunter who had fallen out of a tree stand and had fatal injuries.

Authorities say 50-year-old Jacob Herr was using a self-climbing tree stand on public hunting land with a family member on Tower Road in the Town of Greenfield.

The sheriff’s office said Herr was found by a hunting companion near the base of a tree. He was wearing a safety harness, but it was not attached to the tree.