A gray wolf (Getty Images).
Update: This article was published on Wednesday morning, Hunter Nation officials did not respond to requests for comment until Thursday afternoon. We have now updated it with their comments throughout.
The hunters’ rights advocacy organization heavily involved in pushing to hold wolf hunts in Wisconsin and other intense fights over the state’s conservation policy claims to be a nonprofit — but that might not be the case.
Hunter Nation is a network of organizations that claim to be nonprofits, operating a number of related groups claiming various statuses of tax exemption, but the registrations and documents required by state and federal law to be filed with the government by these groups are either non-existent or hidden from public view. Failure to comply with registration laws can result in revocation of tax exempt status or legal action.
The network, operated by a small group of Republican politicians, donors and lobbyists, claims a membership in the tens of thousands and says its goal is “to be the united voice of the American hunter, to protect our sport, our lifestyle, and our heritage — while standing for the principles of God, family, country, and our nation’s Constitution.”
Hunter Nation has three arms, Hunter Nation Inc, the Hunter Nation Foundation and Hunter Nation Action, all of which claim to be tax exempt nonprofits as either 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) organizations. 501(c)(3) status covers most charities; these organizations aren’t able to advocate for political causes. A 501(c)(4) organization is allowed to advocate for political causes and their funding is often more hidden from public view.
Both types of nonprofits must follow a number of laws for disclosure and registration in order to maintain their status. Also, many organizations operate related 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups, but have to be very careful to make sure any political actions are only conducted by the side that is legally allowed to do so.
Any charitable organization that solicits contributions in the state of Wisconsin must be registered with the Department of Financial Institutions (DFI). Similarly, any organization — nonprofit or otherwise — that has employees working in Wisconsin must be incorporated with the Department of Revenue (DOR).
Hunter Nation Inc. is a 501(c)(4) and the part of the network most active in Wisconsin. It was created in Kansas in 2018, according to its articles of incorporation filed with the Kansas Secretary of State.
In 2019, according to its annual report filed in Kansas, Hunter Nation Inc. had zero members, by 2020 it claimed 25,000.
The Hunter Nation Foundation and Hunter Nation Action were registered as tax exempt organizations in Delaware in 2020. The Hunter Nation Foundation also runs a group called Hunt the Vote, which works to turn hunters out to vote.
Hunter Nation Inc. has been operating in Wisconsin through lobbying and legal activism since at least 2019. In 2020, Hunt the Vote held multiple events at Wisconsin bars, registering people to vote.
As a fundraising tool, Hunter Nation enters donors into a drawing to win “dream hunts.” One is a deer hunt in Texas with musician and conservative activist Ted Nugent, another is a trip to Wisconsin to hunt deer in Buffalo County.
The organization also has a number of employees based in Wisconsin — including its CEO, Luke Hilgemann, who lives in Marshfield.
Update: A public relations spokesperson hired by Hunter Nation says Hilgemann is a volunteer president and CEO.
Hunter Nation has been heavily influencing Wisconsin’s conservation policy. In 2019, the organization successfully sued to hold a wolf hunt in the state. That hunt was held in February and hunters killed more than double the quota set by the DNR.
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Hunter Nation is again pushing for a wolf hunt this fall, fighting lawsuits brought by conservation groups that attempt to stop the planned hunt — which is set to kill 300 wolves. On Tuesday, a group of six Ojibwe tribes filed a lawsuit to halt the November hunt, saying it will violate the tribes’ treaty rights.
Despite the amount of work and fundraising the organization does in the state, there is no record of Hunter Nation as a tax exempt organization in Wisconsin. None of the organization’s three arms are registered with DFI and, even though it has employees here, it isn’t incorporated with DOR.
Update: According to Hilgeman, HunterNaton’s c3 status is pending with the IRS. Its c4 has been in existence for several years, but the c3 requiring filings with the IRS is a newer entity awaiting approval. “The laws that apply to us do not require us to be registered at this time,” a Hunter Nation spokesperson told the Examiner. “If and when it is legally required, we will do so.”
It is possible the organizations are registered under a different name or parent organization, but Hilgemann did not respond to a request for a comment or more information on such registrations.
Update: Hilgeman responded to this article with the following statement: “Hunter Nation registers with government agencies around the country and files reports when it is required, to the fullest extent of the law. We do not have employees in Wisconsin or engage in other activities that require Wisconsin registration and reporting, but the massive growth in our organization shows the enthusiasm for our efforts to stand up for hunting, increase land access, and preserve constitutional principles.”
Despite the claims on all the groups’ websites that they are tax-exempt nonprofits, only one — Hunter Nation Inc. — has ever been recorded as such with the IRS.
A search for Hunter Nation Inc. on the IRS tax exempt organization database returns a result for Hunter Nation Inc., but an IRS representative said the agency had no nonprofit determination letter — the document that states an organization has been given tax exempt status. The Hunter Nation Foundation and Hunter Nation Action did not have determination letters on file with the IRS either.
Nonprofit organizations aren’t required to pay taxes, but every year they’re required to file what’s called a 990 tax form with the IRS that details how much money was raised and how it was spent.
Neither the Hunter Nation Foundation nor Hunter Nation Action have ever filed a 990 and Hunter Nation Inc. has only filed one, in 2018. If a nonprofit goes three years without filing a 990, its tax exempt status can be revoked by the IRS.
Update: According to a spokesman for HunterNation: “HunterNation has filed all 990s required by law. The 2019 990 is filed, HunterNation has received an extension for its 2020 990 as is common for nonprofit organizations, and its 2021 990 is being prepared on schedule.”
The 990 filed in 2018 shows that Hunter Nation Inc. brought in nearly $300,000 in contributions and grants that year. A significant portion of those funds, $202,216, was spent on advertising and promotion, according to the tax form. Another $12,000 was spent on legal expenses. The only other spending listed is $55 for office expenses.
Registration as a nonprofit with the state of Wisconsin also requires an annual report to be filed, which includes the 990 form.
Melissa Scholz, who helps nonprofits work through these issues with Madison-based Scholz Nonprofit Law, says it’s strange the organizations aren’t registered with Wisconsin and haven’t filed 990s, but complex organizations such as the Hunter Nation network can be hard to track.
“If they’re fundraising in Wisconsin they should be registered as a charitable entity through the DFI,” Scholz says. “They should also be registered as a foreign corporation here if they have employees here.”
“Having those four entities is not really noteworthy, of course it is a shell game,” she adds. “It is very hard to get information on organizations like this, particularly if they’re not filing their 990s.”
DFI spokesperson Jess Noelck says generally charitable organizations are required to register with the state, though there are a few exceptions, but the agency can’t comment on Hunter Nation’s specific case.
“As a general matter, a charitable organization that solicits contributions in this state must register with the Department of Financial Institutions. There are several statutory exemptions from registration, however, such as an exemption for certain types of organizations that solicit solely from their membership and an exemption for organizations that do not intend to raise more than $25,000 per year,” Noelck says. “Absent further facts about this organization’s operations in Wisconsin, we’re unable to comment on whether it is required to be registered.”
But Noelck also says that if any organization is violating laws for registration or the annual filing of reports, there could be consequences.
“Charitable organizations that are registered with the DFI must file annual reports, and they are subject to administrative discipline — which may include suspending, revoking, or refusing to renew their registration — if they fail to do so,” she says. “In addition, the Wisconsin Department of Justice may bring legal action to enforce the reporting and registration requirements of the statutes, which may include monetary penalties of up to $10,000 for each violation.”
One of Hunter Nation Inc.’s directors is former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. After the 2016 presidential election, Kobach led an effort, on behalf of former President Donald Trump, to find examples of fraud in that election.
When Hunter Nation Inc. was incorporated with the Kansas Secretary of State, that office was held by Kobach.
Hilgemann, the organization’s CEO and president, has attempted to run hunting-related nonprofits in the past. In 2013, Hilgemann was involved with a group called United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, Inc. That organization, which also claimed to be a nonprofit, was awarded a $500,000 grant by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) under then-Gov. Scott Walker.
That grant was rescinded after an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that United Sportsmen had misrepresented its nonprofit status, claiming at various times to be both a nonprofit and a for-profit entity.
Recently, the future of conservation has been up in the air as the Republican chair of the Natural Resources Board — which sets policy for the DNR — has refused to vacate his seat even though it expired on May 1 and his replacement has been nominated.
The chair, Wausau dentist and cranberry farmer Frederick Prehn, has said he’s waiting for the Wisconsin Senate to confirm his replacement, even as he works with Senate Republicans to delay a confirmation hearing.
According to Prehn’s emails, which were obtained by the Wisconsin Examiner, he was working closely with a Hunter Nation lobbyist to form his plan and remain in his seat despite a backlash from across the state.
When Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit attempting to remove Prehn from his position, Hunter Nation — with the help of right-wing law firm the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty — attempted to intervene in the case on Prehn’s behalf. That effort was denied by a judge, but the case was dismissed and Prehn was allowed to stay on the board.
After winning that court fight, Hilgemann said in a statement that Hunter Nation will continue working in Wisconsin.
“We thank our partners at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty for effectively working on this case on behalf of our members and we look forward to continuing to work with them to ensure the voice of hunters is well represented when our rights to the outdoors are threatened,” he said. “Hunter Nation will never back down when it comes to protecting the rights of hunters.”
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