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Park Service aiming to shoot more deer on Apostles

Whitetail deer are swimming their way into trouble on the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and park officials are gunning for them.

This week the park announced plans to expand deer hunting opportunities starting in 2007, with new archery seasons and an expanded muzzleloader season aimed at killing more deer.

Park resource managers are concerned that deer, which historically have not lived on the islands, are moving in and eating a rare plant called the Canada yew.

Yew once covered the floor of vast areas of the region's northern hardwood forests before logging, settlers and deer infiltrated. In recent years, however, the evergreen bush has been relegated to a few scraggly stems spread across the region. The Apostle Islands are one of the last big stands of native yew in the nation, said Jim Nepstad, the park's chief of planning and resource management.

Yew shrubs can't tolerate the direct sunlight that logging or home building clears the way for, and they can't stand up to deer that consider the plant a delicacy. As the Northland's deer herd has exploded in recent years, yew has declined.

Currently, only muzzleloader rifle hunting is allowed on a few Apostle Islands National Lakeshore islands and fewer than a dozen deer are killed each year.

Under the Park Service's preferred alternative now open for public comments, archery hunting would be added for the first time on most islands during September, November and December. Muzzleloader firearm hunting would be allowed in October on more islands.

The Park Service is hoping to offer special state deer tags and permits issued for hunting on the islands so hunters could take deer there in addition to hunting elsewhere in Wisconsin. The goal is to eliminate or greatly reduce deer from the most sensitive islands, including Devils, North Twin, Outer, Raspberry, Sand and York.

On other islands including Basswood, Bear, Cat, Hermit, Ironwood, Manitou, Michigan, Oak, Otter, Rocky, South Twin and Stockton hunters will be encouraged to take as many deer as possible, but deer will be allowed to remain on the islands.

It's not that there are high densities of deer on the islands, but even a few deer in a small area can eliminate yew. For the plan to work, more hunters are needed than have used the islands in recent years.

"We'll certainly try to steer hunters in the right direction. Especially on Sand and York, the yew is really getting hammered where, historically, deer haven't been there," Nepstad said. "This is one of the last places where you can go and see what the old forest really looked like and we don't want to lose that."

If hunting doesn't work to remove deer from the most sensitive islands, the Park Service could open more liberal hunting regulations, issue special nuisance permits or use sharpshooters.

Whitetails weren't common in the region until after the first settlers cleared forests for logging and farming. That created the second growth needed for deer to thrive here.

It's extremely rare for any National Park Service property to allow any hunting or trapping. But under the act of Congress that created the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, hunting and trapping must be allowed when ecologically acceptable.

Nepstad said requiring bows and muzzleloader rifles will retain the primitive feel that the few active hunters now using the park enjoy.

"We have people out there wearing buckskin jackets and doing it the old-fashioned way and we wanted to keep that flavor while taking a few more deer," Nepstad said.

Fred Strand, area wildlife manager for the Department of Natural Resources, agrees.

"We've worked very closely with the National Park Service to develop this and we strongly support what they're trying to do out there," Strand said. "It's going to provide some unique recreational opportunities that hunters can't get many other places. And it's going to help manage their deer and plant resources."

Local Indian bands also are involved in the effort.

Hunting would not be allowed on Gull and Eagle Islands to protect birds there. Regular firearms deer hunting now allowed on the park's mainland unit and on Long Island will not change under the plan. Muzzleloader and archery bear seasons also will continue under the plan, but very few people hunt bear on the island, Nepstad said. Small game, waterfowl and furbearer hunting also are allowed.

The Apostle Islands deer problem is repeating across the Northland, and not just in suburban yards. Deer are eating young white pines into oblivion in several Minnesota state parks. Special seasons are being held to cull their numbers.

Deer also are eating yew on a Pokegama Lake island Scientific and Natural Area near Grand Rapids. DNR officials there also are trying to increase deer hunting to save that stand of yew, one of the last big stands in Minnesota.