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Bucks of 'the Badger'

1/18/2006

BARABOO, Wis. — The Badger Army Ammunition Plant has long been a legendary place for bowhunters in the know.

Imagine a small, American suburb that has a few whitetail deer sneaking through the backyards; it's a common scene throughout the United States.

Now imagine if the same suburb were abandoned — a ghost town, if you will — for a few decades. Weeds, prairie grasses, brush, thickets and saplings grow thick from neglect and deer would wander the overgrown streets of cracked concrete.

The deer slip in and out of shabby buildings with broken windows and others bed down on sun-warmed cement patios of dilapidated houses.

That accurately describes Badger Army Ammunition Plant in Baraboo, Wis.

"We used to do drives, and it was nothing to kick up 75 to 100 deer," said Sherman Raschein, who has bowhunted the local Sauk-Baraboo area since he was a boy. He grew up 5 miles away from Badger Army Ammunition Plant and hunted there in the early 1990s when he was a university student.

"When you went in there you had to make sure you had plenty of arrows, because you had a lot of shots but almost all of them were at running deer."

"The Badger," as dubbed by locals, is between the nearby Wisconsin River and the Baraboo Range in a region composed of ancient quartzite outcroppings that speckle the southern upland forest.

The boundary abuts Devils Lake State Park. It is the same kind of country described by Aldo Leopold in his classic conservation book "Sand County Almanac." In fact, Leopold spent his weekends a few miles away at his cabin retreat.

The Badger is composed of 7,354 acres of prairie, oak savanna, dry forest, sandy meadows and hardwood wetland. Of the total acreage, 5,600 acres make up a fragmented forest that creates magical edges, where field and forest meet and deer roam.

Dotting this landscape are 1,688 buildings. Some are nondescript ramshackle structures. Others have an industrial look to them. And one particular area evokes images of an Old West town.

It's certainly not your typical whitetail setting, as Raschein points out.

"It was a surreal experience, because you would hide behind buildings and on top of ammunition bunkers," Raschein said.

"I did see some monster bucks in there but they were very intelligent and knew where they could go and be in no-hunting areas or would stand out in the middle of large fields so they could watch you from all angles."

John Balfanz, the area's environmental program manager, also has had unusual hunting endeavors on the property, noting that in seasons past he would go "house-to-house hunting."

"I used to walk quietly between the buildings and find bucks sunning in between them," Balfanz said. "It was like a cat and mouse game."

The Badger Army Ammunition Plant was opened in 1942 to produce gunpowder and other propellants for World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It was decommissioned in 1975.

Around this time, Russell Enoch — the commander of the plant and an ardent sportsman — arranged to have civilian bowhunters pursue whitetails on the military property.

This season, Chad Blank, an outdoorsman from La Crosse, Wis., hunted the Badger in early November. That day the winds were gusting at 45 mph, but it didn't keep the deer down.

"They were rutting hard," Blank said. "I was in the pines using my grunt call and came across a doe with her tail across a buck's nose. Later we saw six bucks chasing a doe out in the field.

"There were so many opportunities to take shots."

In the end, Blank's party harvested a 16-point buck, an 11-pointer, a 9-pointer, two 8-pointers and a doe.

"It was crazy," Blank said.

The 16-pointer is expected to qualify for the Pope and Young record book, he said.

Early this fall, I met with Balfanz and Robert Speaker, the area's natural resources manager.

Of his many roles, Speaker is in charge of managing the deer heard, and he explained how he collects data. When the leaves are off the trees and snow still covers the ground in March, his crew performs deer counts by helicopter.

Last year's count tallied 350 deer. Speaker explained there is a formula for calculating deer herds: Multiply the number of spotted deer by one and a half for an estimated herd population. Still, that only provides a rough estimate with which to work.

"The deer are mobile," Speaker said, "and they jump the fences and there are holes in the fences."

Herd counts numbered about 1,000 in the late 1980s.

The goal now is to manage the deer herd in order to manage the ecosystem. Too many deer and they would overbrowse the vegetation, and the Badger would be left barren.

From his desk, Speaker pulled out enlarged photos of enormous bucks from the Badger.

I was told about the legend of Tiny, a buck that intuitively knew where the hunting and non-hunting areas were located.

Rumors and sightings persisted for years until the deer was found dead in a non-hunting zone. It was a sixteen pointer with two-inch drop tines. Estimated to be 10 years old, the buck is thought to have died from an infection that was the result of a goring from sparring.

A tour of the Badger was arranged for me on a drizzly day.

We drove up to an overlook point on a bluff, where the commanders of bygone days would take VIPs to show off the vista of the sprawling war industry.

Now it is quiet and peaceful and deer, coyotes and wild turkeys abound where people used to work.

Far below was the ballistics pond, which once was stocked with largemouth bass, bluegill and catfish but hasn't been fished in years, except for an occasional probing employee.

Balfanz regaled us with stories about the history of the area.

He grew up a short distance away and in the past has guided ornithological groups performing bird biodiversity surveys. Because of the pockets of native prairie, the Badger holds multitudes birds.

He also has led photographers from the state historical society assigned to capture images of this slice of Wisconsin history before it is torn down and lost. We passed a wooded cemetery where the early Baraboo pioneers are buried. Gnarled apple trees from old homesteads were pointed out.

We drove by parcels of land operated by the Dairy Forage Research Center of the Department of Agriculture.

Some of the 2,000 acres of this federal land is composed of experimental food plots surrounded by tall, protective fences that deer are able to jump. It leaves Department of Agriculture researchers constantly playing defense against the marauding deer that treat their crops like a complementary salad bar.

Some of the oddest structures are the earthen magazine bunkers. They look like small cottages that were bulldozed over with dirt and covered with sod.

Used to store explosives, the earth coverings would dampen any accidental blast.

We crossed a railroad track that is a spur off the main line and is still kept active.

Balfanz and Speaker recounted an old story of a buffoon that scaled the outer fences and went squirrel hunting along the railroad tracks.

He was rounded up by the military police, questioned back at the main office and was let off with a stern warning; the guy apparently did not know he had trespassed on military land despite the warning signs and unusual landscape.

I asked if the deer ever roam around inside the buildings. Many doors hung ajar or were missing and would allow animals to enter.

"Sometimes deer are found dead in buildings; they become trapped and disoriented," Speaker said.

But the history behind the Badger is evolving into a different landscape.

The buildings are being torn down over a five-year plan and the land will be distributed to three groups: the Ho-Chunk Nation, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The plan's primary focus will be on restoring the land back to its original prairie and oak savanna, and gone will be the opportunities to stalk whitetails through a standing relic of American wartime history.

James Card is a free-lance hunting and fishing writer based in South Korea. He can be contacted at www.jamescard.net.