I have often thought that if Democrats could just figure out how to win a majority of the Wisconsin deer hunter vote they'd be running the state again.
There are no official numbers, but it's likely that Democrats take a shellacking when it comes to this demographic. For one thing, 91% of Wisconsin deer hunters are men, and for another, exit polls showed guys favored Gov. Scott Walker by 14 points in the last election.
The opening day of the traditional Wisconsin gun deer season is this Saturday, and I'll be heading to the woods once again. For the record, I'm a member of two of the rare liberal-dominated deer camps in the state -- the one started by Bud and Marilyn Jordahl in Richland County and Camp Medicine Brook near Crivitz. Bud and Marilyn were strong progressives, and at Camp Medicine Brook there's a featured curry ever year -- curry being a sure giveaway for liberal tendencies. But even in those camps I'd say we run about 75% Democratic. We tolerate a Republican or two in our midst as long as they do the dishes and, this year, keep their mouths shut about the most recent election.
But the interesting question for me is why every deer camp isn't filled with Democrats. Most of the conservation tradition in this state has been advanced by liberals. One of the biggest issues for outdoorsmen is finding a place to hunt as more rural land is being purchased by folks who close it to hunting. It's the Democrats who pushed for expansion of the state Stewardship Fund, which acquires land for public outdoor recreation. In the last state budget the Republican majorities slashed the program, even requiring that 10,000 acres of public land be sold.
And it's the Republicans who are pushing to remove limits on foreign purchases of land in Wisconsin.
I would like to say that conservation isn't a partisan issue, and for some time it wasn't. In fact, the Stewardship Fund is named for the late Gov. Warren Knowles and our late, great former governor and U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson. It's no accident that Knowles was a Republican and Nelson a Democrat. And, of course, the nation's uber-conservationist was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican before he bolted from the party and ran as a Bull Moose.
But since those days the Republican Party has become dominated by its make-a-dollar-at-any-cost branch, and culturally it appeals to the disgruntled. And deer hunters, as a group, are nothing if not disgruntled.
Surveys show that even in the best years, when hunters were taking record numbers of deer and the success rate was 76% -- twice the historic rate of 37% -- they reported their experience as only "average." It has gotten so bad that the DNR has wisely stopped even trying to publicly estimate the deer population. They dare not even suggest a number because it had become such a target for unhappy hunters. Every year comments would pour into the DNR along the lines of, "You guys say there's 1.5 million deer in this state. Well, I didn't see any where I was!"
Of course, you might not see any deer where you are because deer have an annoying, uncooperative habit of not spreading themselves evenly throughout every part of the landscape. There's more deer in some parts of the state, and they bunch up even where their numbers are high. They're also very good at finding places to hide. A hunter can be surrounded by deer and never know it, especially if the hunter isn't being diligent enough.
Gov. Walker was playing to the surly nature of hunters when he said during his first campaign in 2010 that he was "sick and tired" of sitting on his deer stand and not seeing any deer. Of course, he hadn't been sitting on his stand for very long, as he had just taken up the tradition a year or two earlier. Last year the governor went out one morning during the season, didn't see any deer, got cold and left the woods.
The governor and too many hunters along with him miss the point. It's not a video game out there. In fact, historically only a little more than a third of hunters get a deer in any given season. In my view a good deer hunter is someone who has the ability to sit in the woods and the fields for cold days on end, not see many deer, much less ever pull the trigger, and still count it a successful season.
Deer hunting is about slowing down. It's about sitting as quietly as you can for as long as you can, even in the cold. It's about listening hard for the rustle in the leaves that's not a squirrel or for the break of a twig that's not caused by the wind. It's about telling stories back at camp that have been told year after year. It's about tasting the curry.
As a middle-aged Wisconsin white guy deer hunter I also find a way to be a liberal Democrat. Actually, my liberalism is consistent with my love for deer hunting. If other guys could be drawn to the same conclusion, we could get our state back on track to make hunting and so much else better for everyone.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at isthmus.com/citizendave.