WASHINGTON COUNTY — Blaze orange and camouflage clothing line the shelves at Fleet Farm as the excitement grows on the eve of Gilbert Garza’s favorite season.
"I'm 62 and I’ve been going since 11,” he said. “A lot of history there."
Garza’s 50-year tradition of participating in gun deer season goes beyond his hopes of taking home a big buck.
"It's the family time,” he said. “Fun, laughter, the woods, nature.”
But as each year goes by, he sees fewer fellow hunters out in the fields.
"In the area I go, the crowds are down,” he said. “The fact that it has gone down a bit is kind of disappointing.”
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife supervisor Bret Owsley says there’s been a steady decline in the number of gun deer season licenses each of the past 23 years.
"Obviously, the Baby Boomer generation participated in hunting more than any other generation bar none, hands down, and we're simply not replacing those hunters as they fall out of the hunting population,” he said.
It’s led to a much smaller number of deer harvested, from more than 518,000 in 2007 to 340,000 in 2022.
"I start getting concerned looking at a trend and that trend is decreasing in hunters 2 percent a year and I think that trend certainly is concerning,” Owsley said.
Owsley says it’s concerning because hunting is the DNR’s primary mechanism for managing the deer population that’s estimated to be above 1.6 million. He says it’s particularly a problem in southern Wisconsin.
"Anytime you have too many deer, the health of the deer can start to decline,” he said. “We have Chronic Wasting Disease and so having a lot of deer on the landscape there can be a problem and also negative interactions with humans."
The most dangerous interaction is on the roads. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation says there were 16,000 deer-vehicle crashes in 2022.
WisDOT data shows Waukesha, Washington, and Sheboygan counties only trail Dane County at the top of the list for the most crashes involving deer each year in Wisconsin.
"Someone will straggle in with a deer hit and then it's literally like someone turns on a faucet and we will be busy with deer hits,” said Jason Lisko.
Lisko sees the issue on a daily basis as the owner of Coachwork Auto Body in Allentown.
"Last Monday we had 17 estimates which is a lot,” he said.
He says recent years have gotten worse, especially in November.
While the damage can be costly, Lisko knows safety concerns are far worse.
"This one just happened to flip and it just hit the window and blew the glass right out of it,” he said. "It is scary. That's where my son sits in my truck."
With more deer in our area, Lisko says it’s even more important for drivers to be alert.