WE WERE sitting around the campfire the other night, talking about the state’s brilliant new deer tagging and registration system, when the tone turned to downright cynical.

Jackpine went on a little bit of a rage, talking about how poachers and cheaters were getting away with everything short of murder to fill their freezers with venison.

“I’ll tell ya right now that there’s something mighty wrong with a system where you can buy licenses and tags for other people, and you can even register their deer,” said Jackpine.

He was referring to the latest online licensing and registration systems in Wisconsin, where all you need is a person’s customer identification number, birthdate and the last four digits of their social security number to transform, on the state’s website, into another person.

“I’m sure we’ve got kids, spouses, grandpas and friends out there who have a license and whose authorization might be used on a deer without them knowing anything about it,” said Jackpine. “What’s to stop that from happening?”

It’s only been a handful of years now since the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided we no longer need to physically register deer at a designated station.

And shortly after that change was made, the state did away with the historical mandate that deer be tagged, immediately upon recovery, with a single-use Tyvek tag.

Today’s licensing system allows hunters to print out multiple paper tags. It also allows a hunter to purchase another tag while they are in the field, as long as they have a cellphone signal.

And with the modern “harvest authorization” system that replaced actual tagging, it takes only a two-minute phone call or website visit to register a deer.

“I’m telling you the system is so ripe for abuse that there’s no telling how many deer are being taken illegally, including multiple deer on a single tag,” Jackpine spewed. “It’s out of control and the DNR is just looking the other way.”

Buck Tailspinner jumped into the fray to calm down the troops, noting that the majority of hunters are honest folks.

“DNR Secretary Dan Meyer told the Rotary Club of Eagle River recently that there’s nothing to worry about,” said Tailspinner. “He shared a story about hunting elk in Arizona some 25 years ago, when he wasn’t required to even register his elk. The state sent out surveys after the season to random hunters. His conclusion was, the sky didn’t fall over Arizona because they didn’t mandate registration. And the sky’s not going to fall over Wisconsin either.”

The scribbler could sit still no longer, blurting out that there’s a big difference between the harvest of 9,000 elk in Arizona and 300,000 deer in Wisconsin. But nobody was listening.

I explained that we’ve been led to believe for decades that registration numbers are vital to deer management here because the DNR uses a sex-age-kill formula for estimating the population, which is important to determining the appropriate number of antlerless deer tags in a county unit.

Using that formula, the buck registration is critical for managers to determine whether the population is declining, staying the same or increasing — all else being equal of course, weather included.

Jackpine started laughing, falling off his chair, as he proclaimed that there’s no way that today’s registration numbers are close to being accurate.

“Do you have any idea how many hunters forget to call in their registration by 5 p.m. the following day, and then decide not to call at all because they’re late and might get in trouble?” he said. “Do you know how many hunters, after getting a buck in the freezer that nobody knew they got, think about going back out again with that same tag?”

Lardo piped in at that point, agreeing that there’s about 50 different ways to abuse a digital-based system where nobody inspects harvested deer.

“The problem is, once the deer is hanging in a guy’s garage it could have come from anywhere and been shot by anyone,” he said. “The rule that allows the transport of totally hidden deer isn’t helping wardens here.

“And once it’s in the freezer, it’s even harder to know where it came from, what sex it was or whose authorization allowed it. Heck, you can pick up a road-killed deer and get an authorization for the venison in that freezer. Or you can not pick up the deer and still get an authorization just by going online. How do wardens have a prayer of enforcing rules like that if people want to cheat?”

There were so many questions and so few answers, yet the debate continued every time somebody told a story about a different way hunters cheated the system.

“Did you hear the story about the group of hunters, sitting in a bar at Thanksgiving without a buck, who all decided to call in and register a buck?” asked Jackpine. “They wanted the DNR to think there were so many bucks harvested and so many deer in that county that they’d give out more doe tags the next year.”

The only conclusion we could make is that no one knows for sure just how much cheating is going on, or how many deer are being taken and not registered — or not registered accurately.

I can only hope that times have changed in 40 years, for when the scribbler arrived in the North Woods, wardens estimated that one-third of the annual deer harvest in northern Wisconsin could be attributed to poaching. That was in the late 1970s.

That all ended when the state slapped a $2,000 fine on the practice of illegal deer hunting. Shortly after that, with the aid of some mild winters, the northern deer herd exploded.

But now, with today’s loose regulations, you have to wonder if rampant cheating will return.