Wisconsin Conservation Congress (Department of Natural Resources)
A monthslong dispute at the Wisconsin Conservation Congress bubbled up at the end of its annual convention last weekend as the pro-hunting voices largely in control of the body moved to quiet dissent.
The incident created a dramatic finish to the annual convention in Oshkosh in which one delegate successfully had a vote negated over a procedural flaw.
The congress, which was first conceived by the conservationist Aldo Leopold in 1934, serves as an advisory body for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Natural Resources Board. Delegates are elected at the county level to weigh in on conservation issues and facilitate the development of the congress’ annual public opinion survey on dozens of environmental topics.
Since the winter, the divide between the congress’ hunters and a newly ascending group of conservationists has grown as the pro-hunting side has used its incumbent power to quash the minority’s ability to influence decisions. That effort has culminated in a move to change the WCC’s code of procedures in an attempt to stop conservationists from circumventing the regular committee process and force questions onto the annual survey.
The survey questions first start at the county level, where attendees to each county’s spring WCC hearing can vote for what they want to be on the survey. The WCC’s nearly two dozen advisory committees are then responsible for choosing which of those questions make it into the final product.
However, because the committees, especially those in charge of more controversial topics such as wolf hunting, are controlled by the pro-hunting side, questions that are perceived to be anti-hunting are struck down. In the past, these questions had another route to make it onto the survey — through a process known as the 3:2 rule. If the same question passed in the same three counties two years in a row, it would make it onto the survey.
This year, in response to conservation groups’ successful efforts to regularly force questions onto the survey through this method, the WCC leadership has moved to close this route and refused to grandfather in seven questions that were meant to be on this year’s survey after reaching the 3:2 threshold last year. Leadership has objected to conservationists’ ability to build public support online, making it easier to reach the threshold than in the past when a person had to crisscross the state whipping votes.
On Saturday, as the congress was wrapping up the convention, Sheboygan County delegate Ed Harvey, who sits on the Fur Harvest Committee that oversees hunting and trapping issues, stood up to speak about a letter he had written to the WCC district leadership council about changing the 3:2 rule and demanded for the change to be immediately pushed through by the entire congress that moment.
“The Fur Harvest Committee often deals with proposals from citizens who have no regard or respect for the committee members or their lifestyles,” his letter states. “We will continue to use Zoom, or whatever evolves from Zoom as we move into the future. But a human being who attends a public meeting and addresses his or her peers in a face-to-face setting is an entirely different creature from the same person sitting at home, sending mass mailings to tens of thousands of people they do not know and whose opinions hold no value to them. We cannot cater to these fearless individuals, and we must be careful not to create potentials within our code of procedure which allow or encourage misuse.”
After Harvey spoke, WCC Chair Rob Bohmann called a vote on his request to push the rule change, which had stalled between the congress’ executive committee, rules committee and district leadership council. After the change passed on a voice vote, Bayfield County delegate Kathy Presnell, a former board supervisor in the town of Gibraltar, stood up to request a point of order.
After Bohmann initially refused her request, saying Presnell didn’t have the floor, she continued to ask for a point of order, arguing that the process through which the vote had just taken place violated Robert’s rules of order — the rules of procedure that every representative body in Wisconsin is required to follow in order to make sure meetings are held predictably and efficiently.
The problem, from Presnell’s view, was that the rule changes weren’t on the agenda after the district leadership council tabled the issue, so the full congress couldn’t take up something that one of its committees had already tabled.
“I don’t know everything about Robert’s rules of order but I knew the code of procedure changes that had started in January have been tabled three times, the most recent was on the Thursday before the conference,” Presnell tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “I also knew you can’t make an amendment to a code of procedures that’s still tabled. I was actually not paying a heck of a lot of attention, then I heard Ed’s name and him talking and then heard the motion. I leaped up into the air and said ‘you can’t do this.’”
After some back and forth between Bohmann, Harvey, Presnell and the DNR lawyer in attendance, Bohmann announced that the vote wouldn’t count.
For the conservation voices in attendance, the episode represented one more time the pro-hunting side had tried to clamp down.
“It was crazy, how could you have something that you’re getting the floor of the congress to pass as chairman and not even read it so they truly understood what they were voting for?” Jackson County delegate Diane Cain says. “How could that be? This is a state-funded entity, obviously it wasn’t legal or the attorney wouldn’t have shut him down. It was crazy, I thought.”
Presnell says she understands that people have strong points of view, but that the defensiveness from the pro-hunting side ultimately harms the congress’ legitimacy.
“I always start in the middle,” she says. “I think both sides of this sort of contentious situation have people on it who really care about Wisconsin’s natural resources for one reason or another. My take on this is that we wouldn’t have to have a 3:2 rule if there was more diversity on all these advisory committees.”
“[Change is] inevitable or the WCC will not make it to its centennial,” she continues. “It’s got to change and these older guys do not know how to handle it. I think it’s going to be the inevitable consequence unless there’s some give. If we do not follow our own rules of order, we are not going to be taken seriously and there’s no reason for the WCC to even exist.”
Neither Bohmann nor Harvey responded to requests for comment.
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