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Wisconsin outdoorsmen spent most of the last decade chafing at the state Department of Natural Resources, accusing the agency of ruining hunting with overly strict regulations.
Republican Scott Walker told hunters on the campaign trail things would be different if he was elected governor, and two years later, it is. Walker and his fellow Republicans have reshaped Wisconsin’s outdoors scene with an intense drive to expand hunting.
Some fees have been cut, hunting and trapping in state parks is now OK, wolves are now fair game and it’s no longer necessary to shoot a doe before getting a buck. Supporters say the moves are important to shore up the $1.4 billion hunting industry as interest wanes among a younger generation.
“At the heart of it, legislators are truly trying to promote the hunting heritage, hopefully in perpetuity, so it doesn’t die on the vine,” said Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, chairman of the Senate’s natural resources committee.
But conservationists and hunting opponents say Republicans and the DNR have tried so hard to please hunters they’ve forgotten non-hunters such as hikers, skiers and birdwatchers.
“I don’t really understand why, instead of promoting all these things, why aren’t they promoting tourism or photography? They’re just not diversifying at all,” said Melissa Smith, organizer of the group Friends of Wisconsin Wolves. “Can’t we encourage people to enjoy the outdoors without killing something?”
Hunting has always been part of the social and economic fabric in Wisconsin. But interest has been waning. According to DNR data, the hunting participation rate for adult males dropped 16 percent between 2000 and 2009. The youth participation rate declined about the same over that span.
DNR hunting officials cite several factors for the dropoff, including aging hunters, a perception that there’s nowhere to hunt and time-consuming video games. Hunter frustration with the DNR was intense over those years, too. They complained about the agency’s earn-a-buck regulations, which required hunters to kill antlerless deer before taking bucks. They also criticized the DNR’s plan to kill as many deer as possible in southwestern Wisconsin to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease.
DNR officials, then under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, said they were following science-based approaches to thin a burgeoning deer herd. But hunters said the tactics were leading to anemic hunts and the agency was ignoring them.
Since Walker and his fellow Republicans took control of state government and the DNR, they’ve eliminated earn-a-buck, created a hunter recruitment council, reduced license fees for first-time hunters and hunters who recruit others to the sport, required online hunter education courses and ended the general prohibition on hunting and trapping in state parks.
They also implemented the state’s first wolf hunt and introduced bills to establish sandhill crane, woodchuck and crossbow deer seasons as well as block local governments from restricting bow and crossbow hunting. The DNR has dusted off plans to import elk in hopes of creating a season on them and is studying how to implement mini deer hunts on private land.
GOP lawmakers and DNR officials say preserving hunting traditions ensures that money exists for conservation — license fees and federal taxes on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment helps fund habitat management — and the balance between species continues.
“When your numbers of new outdoors people … continue to go down, the way to increase those numbers is to make it more accessible,” said Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, an avid hunter who wrote the bills for a sandhill crane season and against local restrictions on bow and crossbow hunting.
The movement has political roots, too. Walker courted hunters on the campaign trail and pro-hunting groups, including the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, have spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying lawmakers since the GOP took over the Legislature in 2011.
Opposition to the sandhill crane season was so intense Republican leaders never brought the bill up for a floor vote. And hunters’ latitude in state parks won’t be unlimited; the DNR’s board is poised this week to block hunters from firing from and across state park trails and to require trappers to use dog-proof snares in the parks.
But conservationists and animal rights advocates haven’t had much success elsewhere.
A judge this spring let stand the Legislature’s provisions allowing hunters to use dogs to track wolves, a blow to a group of humane societies that argued the practice would lead to bloody wolf-dog fights in the woods. This summer the DNR rejected the Sierra Club’s request to join the committee that crafts wolf hunt policy. DNR Land Division Administrator Kurt Thiede wrote in a letter to the Wisconsin chapter’s executive director, Shahla Werner, that the committee isn’t comprised of groups that oppose wolf management since state law now calls for hunting.
Smith sent a letter to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp this month complaining non-hunters have nowhere to enjoy nature. She suggested the DNR raise conservation dollars by offering wolf- and bear-watching tours, kayak trips and canoe outings.
“This agency is controlled by a small amount of people with very narrow interests,” she wrote. “That’s why you’re holding onto traditions that are fading away and find yourself in trouble.”
The DNR routinely gathers public input on policies through hearings and open houses; Thiede wrote in his letter to Werner the Sierra Club can comment on the wolf committee’s recommendations. The agency also runs multiple non-hunting outdoor activities, including candlelight hikes, bicycle tours and stargazing nights, and promotes them through its website, news releases and social media, spokesman Bill Cosh said.
But the public eye is focused on hunting issues in this state. Anne Sayers, program director for the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said the DNR has been moving away from data-driven decisions since Republicans took over. Promoting hunting and preserving tradition is laudable, she said, but the agency needs to do a better job proving it’s necessary.
“Those decisions need to be presented to Wisconsin in a science-based way,” she said. “Is there a need to keep these (wildlife) populations under control rather than fulfilling the desires of a political base?”
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