- Associated Press - Friday, November 18, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The day Wisconsin hunters have been waiting for all year is finally here.

The state’s nine-day gun deer season opens just before dawn Saturday, signaling the start one of Wisconsin’s time-honored traditions. Despite concerns about chronic wasting disease and sparse herds in the north woods, tens of thousands of hunters will be out in hopes of bagging that monster buck.

“I’m driving to my stand as we speak, just to double check it,” Jeff Schinkten, president of Sturgeon-Bay based Whitetails Unlimited, said in a telephone interview Friday. “There’s nothing like an opening day. I have goose bumps.”

Deer hunting remains a lucrative industry in Wisconsin, although interest has been flagging as CWD has spread and deer have grown scarcer in the northern third of the state.

CWD, a brain disease that causes deer to grow thin, act strangely and die, has affected 43 counties since it was discovered in Wisconsin in 2002. Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has taken a largely hands-off approach that focuses on tracking new infections after the Department of Natural Resources’ initial plan to thin herds to stop the disease caused a public backlash. The agency is preparing to update its long-term CWD plan early next year, although Walker so far has refused to go back to widespread killing to contain the disease. Meanwhile, bitter winters in 2012-13 and 2013-14 devastated the northern herds. Statewide harvest totals the last two years - 222,731 deer in 2015 and 222,588 in 2014 - were the smallest since 2000.

DNR figures show hunters bought 613,165 gun licenses last year, compared with nearly 695,000 licenses in 2000. As of Thursday, hunters had purchased about 16,000 fewer licenses than the 491,072 licenses they had bought by the same time last year, although the agency typically sees a Friday rush.

The weather for opening day looks rough, with highs forecast for the 30s and winds gusting up to 40 mph. Some areas of the state might get snow Saturday morning, but forecasters don’t expect any accumulation. A lack of snow will make it tougher to see and track deer. Sunday looks cool again but sunny.

Still, the DNR has reduced the number of northern counties where hunters can take only bucks from 19 to 10, a sign that the region’s herds are recovering. Walker, who plans to hunt in Vilas County on Saturday, has tweeted a video of himself decked out in blaze orange and camouflage urging hunters to get into the woods and telling them how to purchase their licenses. On Friday he tweeted a photo of his gun license.

Schinkten plans to take his 15-year-old granddaughter and 8-year-old grandson to his hunting spot in Door County. His grandson isn’t old enough to hunt, but he loves dressing in blaze orange, Schinkten said.

“We’ve got some problems, but quite honestly, to sit there and dwell on the negative, it defeats the purpose,” Schinkten said. “Deer hunting is about camaraderie, getting together with your family and friends at camp. We’ll be playing cards, telling the same stupid stories we’ve told a thousand times. It’s going to be a great day.”

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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