When Is It Your Deer?

Dec 7, 2017

Another firearms deer season is in the books. Did you get your deer? In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist takes a look at when a deer really becomes yours.

Well, did you get your deer? You may have gotten a deer, but whose was it really, and when did it actually become yours? I know a guy who owns a large amount of land in NW Wisconsin, and he manages the hunting access. He has ring binders with photos of deer you are allowed to shoot, and deer you are not allowed to shoot. When you are in his blind, you have to compare any buck you see to the photos, and make your decision to shoot based on the instructions he provides. If you shoot the wrong deer, you have to pay him a fine.  This individual also has a guide license, and customers pay him for hunting access to his land. There are no fences around his land, so whose deer are they? Are they his? If so, when do they become his deer—when they enter his property?

To answer those questions, it might be interesting to examine a little bit of history in context. The founding fathers left their homelands for various reasons and developed their own country that would operate according to their values. For example, they wanted to have a say in the passage of laws, and the application of taxes—no taxation without representation. Their European homelands were sovereign governments, giving the power not to the people, but to a king, emperor, or other national governance. This included wildlife – you harvested the King’s deer, legally or illegally.

When colonists and settlers came to the New World, they relied heavily on seemingly boundless wildlife to provide food, clothing, tools, and money through trapping and trading. The indigenous peoples did not believe that the land, the plants, or the wildlife belonged to any one person; they were provided for all to use in their life pursuits. As the nation took form, this attitude was formalized into a form of game management we now refer to as the North American model of wildlife management. In the U.S., in terms of wildlife law (and others) the state is the sovereign government and the federal government is the more limited, delegated government.  The wildlife belongs to all people collectively, and is held in trust by the state. That is why the state can sell a license to individuals, giving them the right to harvest an animal.

There are exceptions to state management of wildlife, of course—Indian reservations, tribal harvest treaties, and migratory birds are a few examples. With deer, though, wildlife managers manage hunting across units, across the state, using guidelines and restrictions set forth in state statute and administrative code. The deer are owned by all citizens of Wisconsin, of the United States. Anyone from anywhere in the United States can come to Wisconsin, purchase a firearms deer license, and have equal ownership of deer with every other citizen, hunter or otherwise. When you shoot a deer legally while in possession of that license, you reduce the deer to possession – then it becomes yours exclusively. There are over 5.6 million people in Wisconsin, and each year about 10% of them bought a permit to harvest deer. Hunters are in the minority in Wisconsin and across the U.S., but they pay for the majority of the management through state hunting license fees and Federal excise taxes on sports equipment. Regardless, though, they have no more entitlement to the wildlife of Wisconsin than any other citizen.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.