Since Wisconsin instituted the Zone T deer hunting seasons in 1996 to help control the size of the state’s deer herd, interest in the special antlerless-only deer hunts has been mixed. Part of that is because the number of deer management units (DMUs) open for the season varies from year to year, and part of that is because the hunts are short — just four days at a time — and are directed only at antlerless deer.

However, with the discovery of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin, and the relationship between deer herd size and disease transmission, there has been a lot of interest this year in this special season. People have been asking me how I think the early Zone T hunt, held Oct. 24 to 27, went from a DNR standpoint.

Overall, we were pretty darn happy with the way it went. Of course, statewide on Thursday and Friday, we had some pretty miserable hunting conditions, but it was better during Zone T than it often is during the regular nine-day deer gun season.

Very preliminary totals tell us that hunters took about 28,000 deer during Zone T. For hunters in the chronic wasting disease intensive harvest and management zones, it was a chance to harvest a doe and get an “Earn-a-Buck” tag. For many people, it was a chance to hunt under relatively low hunting pressure situations.

For us, Zone T was almost a full dress rehearsal for our opening weekend deer sample collection activities. With about 6,000 samples collected, we learned some things.

First, we need to try to get the deer sample collection sites adjacent — or at least closer — to registration stations. Especially in the north, we found many of you were pretty anxious to get the meat home, and the extra drive after registering your deer to a collection site wasn’t too appealing. We’ll work on that.

Second, we need to make sure that everyone understands that the DNR will pay for the tests of the 40,000 to 50,000 deer in the CWD surveillance effort. If we take your deer head as a sample at one of our sites, we’ll pay for the test and contact you by phone or post card with the results. There was a rumor floating around that we would ask you to get your checkbook out when you dropped your deer off. Just not true.

We’re looking for adult deer and not fawns. We are asking hunters — even if they are not particularly concerned about CWD and getting their deer tested — to bring adult deer into a collection site during opening weekend. It’s very important for our research — research that will give us the most comprehensive picture about deer health and CWD anywhere in the world.

Third, we felt badly about turning some hunters away from our collection sites because their deer were too young to sample. We’re trying to do a better job of letting you know what we are looking for in the way of samples. Our CWD surveillance is based on the ‘gold standard’ test in checking deer for CWD, which examines a portion of the brain tissue. Chronic wasting disease is relatively slow to develop. To maximize our sampling efforts, we want deer to be at least 1 1/2 years old – old enough to accumulate a detectable level of CWD prions in the brain tissue. Consequently, we can’t use fawns for samples.

We also can’t use deer shot in the head or neck because of damage to the brain and spinal tissue. For hunters wanting to provide a sample, that means dispatching the deer with a heart shot.

One of the true benefits of the Zone T was giving DNR staff in all corners of the state a chance to set up collection stations and processing centers, to evaluate how well they ran, and to make adjustments for the sure-to-be-busier opening weekend. I know we will be ready.

I couldn’t finish this column without a thank you. Thanks to hunters who drove the extra miles to drop off a sample for our CWD surveillance program. Thanks to hunters willing to get out during Zone T and help us bring our overpopulated deer herd closer to goals. Thanks to hunters in the Intensive Harvest Zone willing to do the tough job of getting the local herd to as close to zero as possible. And thanks to the volunteers — to the DNR staff and retirees, staff of other agencies and hunter volunteers who stood in the cold, took data, processed deer samples and helped get our surveillance effort off the ground.

There is no way wildlife managers could do what we are attempting to do — eradicate CWD in Wisconsin — without the astonishing outpouring of help and support we are receiving. Thanks to you all.