Some Wisconsin wildlife species thriving, even in Wisconsin suburbs


The wild turkeys were the first I spied Monday night at Curry Park in Wauwatosa.

The 10-strong bachelor party paid me little attention as they digged their toes into the saturated lawn, snatching up maggots, worms and ants with lightning-fast grasps of their beaks.

Next I saw the Canada Geese, a flock of about 20 happily nibbling on manicured grass and waddling through puddles left by the September monsoon. It was honker nirvana.

Then a trio of larger figures appeared from the east. These had four legs and hair. One even had an impressive 10-point racket.

The white-tailed deer walked purposefully under a white oak tree and, head down, began to pluck and shred acorns. Minutes later, more deer trotted in single file.

At one point, turkeys, geese and deer were within 15 meters of each other.

And 20 meters away from me.

It was all kopasetic.

This helps highlight the adaptable nature of these species and explain how they have recovered over the past century and are now thriving in everything from wild landscapes to urban spaces.

Here they were, the big three of Wisconsin’s wildlife circa 2022, mingling on a public lot in the shadow of the state’s largest city.

Just 100 years ago, there wasn’t a single deer or turkey in southern Wisconsin, let alone Milwaukee County. And probably very few geese.

When Frederick Law Olmsted designed Milwaukee’s Lake, Riverside, and Washington parks in 1893, little did he know that these three large, native wildlife species would later visit his creations.

But all contemporary Wisconsinits are familiar with turkey, geese and deer. The species are found in all 72 counties.

Curry Park and other properties in the Milwaukee County Park System are prime spots for viewing all manner of wildlife.

Monday night’s gathering of animals got me thinking about how far the three species have come.

Given the current abundance, it’s a story many people find hard to believe.

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But it’s important to periodically look back and assess what is allowing some species to recover while others falter or disappear.

Turkey, geese, and deer were common when humans first settled in the area we now call Wisconsin.

However, as the human population increased greatly in the 18th and 19th centuries, wildlife suffered.

Burton Dahlberg and Ralph Guettinger of the Wisconsin Conservation Department described the major causes of native fauna declines in “The White-tailed Deer in Wisconsin,” a 1956 Pittman-Robertson-funded technical wildlife bulletin.

“The environmental changes caused by logging, fires, and settlements, coupled with the harsh warfare waged by market hunters, significantly changed the picture of Wisconsin’s wildlife,” wrote Dalhberg and Guettinger. “Animals that needed a ‘wild’ habitat disappeared with its destruction.”

Game supplied by market hunters was shipped to Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and even further east. According to the authors, tons of venison, hundreds of thousands of passenger pigeons, ducks, geese, quail and grouse made their way to the city markets via the market hunter.

Heavy logging followed by widespread wildfires and later conversion of land to agriculture dealt a triple blow to many wildlife species.

The number of farms increased from 20,177 and 2.9 million acres in 1850 to 169,795 farms covering 19.9 million acres in 1900.

According to Dahlberg and Guettinger, when the game was exhausted, the settlers turned more and more to the crops, which they grew for food and income.

The wildlife tribute was breathtaking. Records compiled by Aldo Leopold and Walter Scott show that bison and elk, both common in parts of the state in the early 1800s, were exterminated in 1832 and 1868, respectively. The wild turkey was exterminated in 1872 and the cougar in 1908.

Deer suffered the same fate in the south and east of the state. A 1912 map of Wisconsin wildlife area compiled by Charles Cory of the Field Museum of Natural History shows “no deer” south of a diagonal line from about Vernon County to Door County.

However, the changes have not been bad for all species.

The prairie chicken—larger prairie chickens and black-tailed chickens—experienced population increases as trees were cleared and fires created more grassland.

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Deer numbers also increased as vegetation recovered after the great deforestation in the north.

The burgeoning field of wildlife management, aided by the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act in 1937, instituted protective crop regulations and encouraged greater law enforcement.

Pittman-Robertson is an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and certain hunting gear. Over the past 85 years, it has distributed about $15 billion to government agencies for wildlife management, including $1.1 billion in 2021.

But the recovery didn’t happen overnight.

Doug Hoskins of Muskego, a retired DNR conservationist and warden supervisor, has memories from the mid-20th century that many find hard to believe today.

One showed a deer spotted on his grandfather’s farm in Jefferson County in the 1950s.

“My grandfather came and got everyone and loaded us up and we looked for[the deer],” Hoskins said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so excited about anything.”

You never saw the deer. But now there are more deer than cows in many counties in Wisconsin.

The memory of the other Hoskins is that they went to Horicon on a goose hunt in about 1960. They arrived at the edge of the swamp hours before dawn and lined up with a line of would-be geese hunters, hoping to get a place to hunt.

“And the best part is that we had a goose day overall,” Hoskins said. “It was like a trophy back then.”

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 3,002 geese were killed by hunters in the managed Horicon hunt in 1960.

During this period, goose hunting was not permitted anywhere else in the state.

The Canada goose population was so small that when the U.S. Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, “honkers” were seriously considered for inclusion on the first conservation list, said Stan Temple, professor emeritus of conservation in the Beers-Bascom Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Senior Fellow of the Aldo Leopold Foundation.

In the end, wildlife managers and biologists decided against it.

Your judgment has proven wise. In recent years, the number of large birds has increased dramatically.

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Hunting regulations have also been considerably liberalized.

In the 2022 season, hunters can hunt geese in all 72 counties and take five birds per day in the early season and three birds per day in the regular season.

Overall, hunters in Badger State have more than 100 goose hunting days this season.

In 2018, hunters killed 128,553 Canada geese in Wisconsin, according to federal estimates.

While deer and geese came back on their own, turkeys needed human help.

Birds were caught in Missouri and flown to Wisconsin where they were released.

The Pittman-Robertson funding helped the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the National Wild Turkey Federation fund the reintroduction of wild turkeys to the Badger State.

The big three – turkeys, geese and deer – are not only stars of wildlife raising in Wisconsin, but also in America.

Turkeys have gone from about 30,000 in the US in the 1920s to about 7 million today. Giant Canada geese on the Mississippi Flyway have recovered from near-threatened status in the mid-20th century to an estimated 1.5 million birds in 2022. And white-tailed deer, estimated at fewer than 500,000 in the US in the 1930s, number about 30 million today.

Turkeys, geese and deer have at least two things in common: they benefit from agricultural crops, including corn; and they are adaptable and thrive in a range of environments from wild to urban.

As evening light faded Monday, the parade of deer increased, but geese flew out of the park, likely to rest on the water overnight, and turkeys cackled and flapped on their limbs in a hardwood stand to their roosts.

Amidst habitat loss and other challenges, it’s easy to forget just how far wildlife has come in Wisconsin and the nation.

Having the big three in our midst, even in suburban Milwaukee, helps us remember what’s possible.

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