No joy in Wisconsin's June deer hunting season


Mar 11, 2001
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No joy among hunters in June season

In face of wasting disease, deer hunt more duty than adventure

By MEG JONES of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel staff

June 8, 2002

Photo/Joe Koshollek
Dick Sonnenberg looks out on his 80 acres near Black Earth. "This isn't exactly enjoyment," the 63-year-old landowner said of the special deer hunt.  

Black Earth - It's 5 a.m., and the dark blue sky begins to brighten as Dick Sonnenberg cradles his .270-caliber Winchester and scans the scenic, rolling countryside he has owned and hunted on since 1964.

It's opening day for deer hunting season, but the excitement and anticipation Sonnenberg feels on every opening day is missing.

Sonnenberg is trying to kill as many deer as he can. So is every other landowner in this area who has received special permits to kill the animals to prevent the spread of a deadly brain disease in deer.

"I always feel enjoyment on opening day," said Sonnenberg, as he walked slowly across his hilly property in the Town of Vermont Saturday morning. "This isn't exactly enjoyment."

Saturday marked the start of a special kill - the first legal hunt held in June in Wisconsin since before the Civil War - in an area near Mount Horeb that the Department of Natural Resources has identified as the chronic wasting disease eradication zone.

This is the firewall the DNR hopes will stop the disease - and landowners such as Sonnenberg are on the front lines.

The agency wants all of the deer, an estimated 15,000, killed to prevent the rest of Wisconsin's wild whitetail herd from getting infected.

Officials aren't sure how many deer will be killed on this opening weekend, but Carl Batha, who is coordinating the hunt for the DNR, said he would be happy if 250 animals are harvested.

About 900 people have been given permits for the special hunt, which will end next Sunday. One-week hunts are also scheduled in July and August.

So far, 18 deer shot in this area have tested positive for chronic wasting disease, including a few only a mile or two from Sonnenberg's property.

Not a typical hunt
While the gun-deer hunt held every November draws as many as 700,000 hunters and pumps millions of dollars into Wisconsin's economy, this effort is far different.

DNR officials expect most of the deer harvested will be incinerated after samples are taken for testing. Few hunters want to take a chance on eating the venison because of concerns about chronic wasting disease and because the meat spoils so quickly in hot, humid weather.

This hunt is much more difficult for hunters who worked up a sweat just getting to their tree stands and hunting spots. Dragging out the carcasses is harder with no snow on the ground. And hunters aren't allowed to field dress - remove the insides of - their deer, which means the animals are much heavier to remove from land that is mostly hilly.

"It's not a jovial time," Batha said at the Mazomanie registration station. "This is work. We're dealing with the heat."

Heavy foliage also makes it difficult to see deer.

"There could be a hundred of them right here and you can't see them," said Sonnenberg as he crossed a small creek on his land.

Sonnenberg hunts every opening day on his 80 acres with his son and 13-year-old grandson. On this morning, he went out alone.

"Before you hunt on opening day you get excited, even at my age. You can't sleep. Well, last night, there was no anticipation," the 63-year-old said.

As he sat under a large oak tree and listened to birds chirping, Sonnenberg spied a deer at the edge of a farm field, feeding. It was joined by another deer that nibbled and looked up, then ate more. But they were too far away to shoot.

Just a few shots
The faint sound of shots could be heard in the distance, but only a few. Not like first light on opening day in November when it's common to hear lots of shooting.

A few minutes later, Sonnenberg heard the sound of hoofs cantering through tall grass. A deer stopped 20 yards away and looked at him, its ears alert. A larger deer ran up beside it. Sonnenberg took aim and squeezed the trigger.

The larger animal flinched and took off. Sonnenberg waited a few minutes, then began following the blood trail through a field of wild daisies. A short distance away was the dead animal, a yearling doe that weighed about 150 pounds.

As Sonnenberg attached the red hunting tag to the animal's ear, he talked about the emaciated deer he and his wife, Beverly, saw two years ago on their land.

"It was just pathetic looking. We couldn't hardly imagine it could walk. But we'd never heard of chronic wasting disease," he said.

Sonnenberg, a retired steamfitter, dragged the deer to a spot where he could drive his tractor to pick up the animal. Then he loaded it into his pickup and drove it to a registration station near Mazomanie because he wanted to get rid of the animal before the weather got warmer.

At the registration station, Sonnenberg was the first hunter to arrive. DNR employees clad in overalls and rubber gloves spread a large sheet of plastic over a table and helped Sonnenberg move the doe onto the table. They removed a tooth and then the head, which were bagged for testing. The carcass also was bagged and placed in a refrigerated semitrailer.

As a DNR official filled out paperwork, Sonnenberg pointed out on a large topographical map the spot where he killed the doe.

A sense of duty
Soon others arrived with carcasses in the back of their pickups and cars. Most said they didn't enjoy shooting tiny, speckled fawns or deer that looked perfectly healthy but said they felt an obligation to do so.

Dave Gjestson, a retired DNR employee, shot a yearling doe that walked onto his pasture a few miles south of Mazomanie.

"The core of them we know are in good shape. We know it's a waste of a great resource, but we've got to do it," said Gjestson.

Sonnenberg said he planned to go out hunting again Saturday evening.

"I'm not going to dedicate my life to it, but I feel strongly about this," he said. "You've got to do what's right."


Well-known member
Oct 23, 2001
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Wisconsin deer hunting in June!

Next thing you know, we will be putting on sun tan lotion and hunting out of lawn chairs

Sad situation...I hope it gets better soon.

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