Over the past year, one of Wisconsin’s most heated political fights has been over the direction of the state’s conservation policies and the rules that guide hunting in the state.
Lawsuits have been filed and insults have been traded. A Republican appointee to a state board has dug his heels in and refused to leave his seat even though his term has expired and replacement nominated. A package of bills nominally for expanding hunting access which allows for the hunting of sandhill cranes and the concealed carry of firearms has been introduced by Republican legislators. Ted Nugent held court in the Assembly chamber of the State Capitol last week.
The fight has expanded and morphed. It serves as a proxy battle between legislative Republicans constantly seeking to pull power away from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ executive branch and the Department of Natural Resources; a culture war between urban and rural Wisconsinites and a clash between conservationists and hunters.
Which side people fall on often depends on how they feel about Evers, wolves or some combination of the two.
As the push and pull over hunting in Wisconsin continues, Republicans and their allies say they are fighting to protect a way of life that is essential to traditional Wisconsin values and the importance of maintaining a strong hunting and fishing culture in the state. But there are hundreds of thousands of hunters in Wisconsin and some feel that the values the Wisconsin hunter has traditionally stood for are being left behind in favor of scorched-earth politics, neglecting the conservationism pioneered by such Wisconsin icons as Aldo Leopold and John Muir.
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“I think we’ve always had an eye on conservation as a hunting culture,” Noah Wishau, co-chair of the Wisconsin chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, says. “You go back through Aldo Leopold and John Muir, conservation groups from the 1920s through to today, groups like Ducks Unlimited and the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, those groups have been around and you can see their successes in what we have in our hunting opportunities today.”
Earlier this year, Hunter Nation, a pro-hunting lobbying group, filed and won a lawsuit seeking to force a wolf hunt to be held in February. State law says that whenever wolves aren’t listed as endangered by the federal government, there has to be a hunt here. Officials at the DNR had planned to hold a hunt in November, but Hunter Nation’s win meant there would be hunts both in February and November.
In May, Natural Resources Board Chair Frederick Prehn’s term was set to expire. An appointee of former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, Prehn has refused to leave his seat even though Evers has nominated his replacement. Prehn represents the deciding vote on the board which currently has a 4-2 Republican majority.
Prehn has coordinated with both Hunter Nation and the Republican leadership in the state Senate to hold onto power. One of their chief goals, Prehn’s emails show, is to influence the wolf hunt.
This summer, Prehn and his fellow Republicans ignored the advice of DNR biologists and, in a contentious meeting, voted to set the quota for the November wolf hunt at 300 — much higher than recommended. A few weeks ago, the DNR went against the decision of the board and set the quota at 130.
As all of this was going on, several lawsuits were filed against Prehn and the DNR trying to get the courts to untangle it all.
This month, Republican legislators unveiled their package of hunting bills, which they said was a direct response to, in their eyes, Evers and DNR Secretary Preston Cole ignoring hunters and farmers in Northern Wisconsin.
“Governor Evers and his DNR haven’t shown good leadership in any aspect for Wisconsin outdoorsmen and women,” Sen. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond) said in a statement. “Over and over again, the DNR has made it clear that they won’t listen to rural Wisconsin citizens’ concerns, so we’re taking a stand with this legislative package. We’re telling hunters, anglers, trappers, and gun owners that we’ve got their backs and we’re defending our rights for transparency, simplified regulations, and improved access to our state’s natural resources.”
Wishau says he’s more concerned that all the meddling will undermine the Natural Resources Board, which he believes has worked well in the past and resulted in conservation successes that hunters and environmental groups can agree on.
“I have trouble, as somebody who grew up being a conservative, with lawsuits being the way to start or stop things, it’s the purview of the Legislature,” Wishau says. “In Wisconsin, we have a good system. There’s a shield from the Legislature making laws and telling the DNR what to do, that’s the Natural Resources Board. I have concerns about the future of the Natural Resources Board. … Some of the stuff we’re doing today just because it’s popular or just because, on this one issue, it’s not working the way we want so we’re going to do something else. I have trouble getting rid of a system that works and has given us some outstanding success stories over the years just for temporary convenience.”
Animating every move in this fight is the wolf hunt, which Wishau says is the “third rail when it comes to hunting politics in Wisconsin.” Groups like Hunter Nation, its allies in state government and some residents of Northern Wisconsin — who don’t like living near a wolf pack — take a hard line approach against the wolves.
“You are now officially the #1 enemy of wolves. :‐),” Natural Resources Board member Greg Kazmierski wrote in an email to Prehn in June.
But Wishau sees the return of the wolf to Wisconsin as a success story and while he says the wolf population should be managed, that doesn’t mean it should be as aggressive as some groups want.
“It’s frustrating when you’re trying to look at it through a conservation lens,” he says. “The wolf is a conservation success story in Wisconsin; they came back. We have places in this state that can support a wolf population. Instead of looking at that as a good thing and figuring out a way to manage the population. You get, ‘We don’t like wolves, we don’t need wolves,’ and that’s a shame. We have wild places in this state that can support a wolf population, that’s cool. Wolves should be on the landscape but we should be able to manage them.”
But Wishau also doesn’t think this polarization over the wolves is a new thing — saying humans and wolves have been coming into conflict for ages and it’s hard to overcome that.
“I can’t think of a fairy tale or anything like that with the wolf being anything but the villain,” he says.
As a backdrop to all of this, hunting in Wisconsin is declining in popularity — giving activist groups such as Hunter Nation a bunker mentality and making them feel like the sport they love is dying. Republicans say the DNR’s rules and regulations are killing hunting in Wisconsin, making it too difficult for people to take up the sport.
Wishau points to the cost of the gear and an aging hunting population as a more likely cause. Jason Stein, research director at the Wisconsin Policy Forum and a hunter himself, says there is cause for concern about hunting declining in Wisconsin — partially because the fees from hunting licenses help pay for a number of other conservation programs.
“The baby boomers have been the big hunting group and they were bigger than previous generations of hunters and subsequent generations of hunters,” Stein says. “They’re starting to get to the age where they may end up hunting longer than other hunters have in the past, they’ve done other things longer, but people come to a point where they drop off. You might think we’re going to have fewer hunters, so what? Like we have fewer badminton players. But the problem is, unlike badminton, we have part of our state programming built on hunting and fishing. There is revenue for state conservation programs that comes from hunting and fishing in a way that bird watching or hiking doesn’t to the same degree. So that’s the legitimate issue here.”
Working to get more people involved in hunting and fishing in Wisconsin would be good, Stein says, but it’s not clear that the goal of broadening the appeal of those pursuits will be achieved through a package of culture war bills that, among other items, will allow people to carry weapons while driving an all-terrain vehicle.
“In the abstract, getting more people involved in these things is a worthwhile thing for lawmakers to get involved in,” he says. But, he asks, “is this the package to do it?”
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