Department of Natural Resources (DNR) secretary Preston Cole came before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday to discuss the department’s budget, more than a year after the onset of the pandemic. Throughout the hearing, Cole was grilled by Republican members of the committee on DNR policies, from changes the department has made to its operations due to COVID-19 to fish stocking to the controversies over Wisconsin’s wolf hunt.
At various points, the state’s “sporting heritage” was invoked by committee members. “Certainly something that’s in our Wisconsin constitution, has a great history, hunting, trapping, fishing,” said Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam) to Cole. “And, at least in your prepared remarks, I didn’t hear a lot about it. I think there was a message of some women increasing in deer hunting, which is excellent. So, certainly glad to see that highlighted. But beyond that, I haven’t heard a lot about that today yet. And, also, as I look through your budget, I don’t see a lot of focus on that.”
Cole responded that the pandemic put a damper on hunter education opportunities and online testing presented challenges in rural areas that lack reliable internet service. After a contract became available through the Department of Administration, the DNR was able to use the same vendor for online testing that other states have hired.
“We set a personal record, as it relates to the number of children who were able to be certified online,” said Cole, “making them eligible then to participate in training with hands-on, should their family member or parent believe that that’s what they needed to do.”
The secretary also highlighted outreach programs geared toward introducing children to hunting and trapping, as well as other outdoor activities and skills. Nevertheless, Born pressed on other policy changes, such as a $5 increase in the cost of waterfowl stamps. Cole stated that the increases will help ensure that habitat protections necessary for waterfowl are funded.
“And also the most necessary habitat, as birds start to move south from the breeding and brooding grounds in Canada,” noted Cole. “If those brooding grounds are not robust, and dry up, then we’re going to have problems in sustaining a duck hunt in the state of Wisconsin — and everybody south of us.” For over 24 years, the secretary said, waterfowl stamps have not increased in price. “It was time,” said Cole.
The theme of habitat sustainability clashing with the wants of outdoor sportsmen also arose during a discussion of fish stocking in Lake Michigan. Sen. Howard Marklein (R- Spring Green) inquired as to whether fish stocking for walleye and other species had decreased between 2018 and 2020. “We have demand going up,” said Marklein, “and it doesn’t appear to be that there was stocking at levels that we have historically.”
Cole noted that Wisconsin is third in the nation for out-of-state fishing licenses, which speaks to that demand. However Cole echoed what he’s been told by agriculture advisors, that, “it ain’t about the numbers, it’s about the habitat that they go into.” He added that, “for us to make sure that what we put in can survive, the healthier the habitat the better off we are. And that’s the advice that we get from the industry.”
Marklein also pointed to drops in pheasant stocking, which Cole linked to a slowdown during the pandemic. Marklein also questioned the DNR’s handling of surges in park visitors during the pandemic.
“I saw and heard what was going on in some of my parks in my district,” said Marklein. “Vandalism. The people who were coming in then to take advantage of this free opportunity were not from … They were not what I would consider to be normal park supporters and people that typically enjoy our parks. The license plates were from all over the Midwest, New York, etc. I would call it almost overrun. Maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit but you know what I mean, with people looking for something to do. And then we locked them down. … We went from one extreme to another. And, meanwhile the people that love our parks, that take their families out there periodically were locked out.”
He wondered whether initially opening state parks up for free was a wise decision. As parks were flooded with people, however, the DNR enacted new policies to limit the number of people allowed in each park. Cole argued that the larger issue with the parks, from a public safety standpoint, was the lack of social distancing and mask wearing.
“Public safety prevails, and people were not listening to law enforcement when we say ‘stay apart.’ And certainly we have a myriad of pictures, certainly vandalism occurred. But the problem was the beaches, people were not social distancing. Quite frankly, it looks like what you see on TV today from areas around the country.”
Marklein went on to blast the DNR for its social distancing policies, and for allowing employees to work from home. Several GOP representatives also demanded to know when DNR staff will be allowed to “do their jobs” and “get back to work.” Perhaps the most tense exchange was between Sen. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) and Secretary Cole. First the senator inquired why a grant was denied for a marsh spillway in northern Wisconsin near Dead Pike Lake, while a grant was allowed for a marsh in Sheboygan.
Felzkowski wondered why the Sheboygan marsh was granted when the area already receives federal funds through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Felzkowski also asserted that the Dead Pike Lake issue was originally created by the DNR some 50 years ago, although Cole responded, “I hear substantive disagreement to that.” Felzkowski concluded that the issue has more to do with “one is in northern Wisconsin, and one is not. We’ve got an ongoing issue with the DNR.”
Felzkowski also raised the issue of Wisconsin’s wolf hunt, which became a flashpoint after the gray wolf was removed from federal endangered species list by former President Donald Trump. On the heels of that change came a lawsuit against the DNR by Hunter Nation Inc., a Kansas-based organization. A Jefferson County circuit court judge ruled in favor of Hunter Nation, and preparations for a hunt began.
Sen. Felzkowski referenced statutes calling for a wolf hunt, and the demands of hunting organizations that one be held. Due to a shortened timeline, the DNR was unable to gather public input, particularly from Wisconsin’s tribal communities.
After the wolf hunt began and controversy arose about how it was carried out and a high kill rate that exceeded quotas, the DNR shut it down early. “If you aren’t representing the sportsmen who are asking for the hunt,” said Felzkowski, “who are you representing? …Why did it take a lawsuit for you to do your job?”
The February wolf hunt drew fire for taking place during the breeding season while wolves were carrying pups and because quotas set for hunters were exceeded across the state. When the DNR shut down the hunt early, Felzkowski said that besides infringing on hunters’ rights, DNR was putting at risk farming communities and livestock that have been endangered by the wolf population.
The senator noted that the harvest of other predator hunts, such as bears, had also been exceeded. “We manage bear, we manage bobcat,” said Felzkowski. “Bear we went over 12%, we manage our predators. We have the effect of the wolf population hurting our farmers, hurting our land values. I mean, you have a statute and you have hunters that are asking you for this. I guess I’m asking by not having the hunt, who are you representing?” Cole responded, “My responsibility is to make sure I pay attention to the science and allow the consultation laws that we have on the books with the tribes.”
Other issues, including groundwater contamination through PFAS and nitrates were also discussed. On March 29, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) sued the DNR to block the department from collecting and analyzing wastewater effluent samples from industrial facilities and publicly owned treatment facilities. On Tuesday, the DNR reached an agreement with WMC, the state’s largest business group, which allows the department to continue sampling water from industrial and municipal treatment plants for the chemicals, as long as it does not release the results to the public.
Democratic committee member Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) had some choice thoughts for her WMC-backed Republican colleagues on the committee on Wednesday. “Wisconsin Republicans are doing a lot of complaining about fish stocks, but are not as concerned about keeping cancer-causing PFAS out of our lakes and streams,” she wrote in a tweet, “so that those fish are safe for our families to eat.”