One year after a record 64,943 people participated online in Wisconsin’s 2020 spring conservation hearings, one-fifth that number took part in the April 12-15 statewide survey.
Wisconsin’s conservation hearings, a tradition dating to the 1930s, let voters tell policy-makers what they think of proposed changes to rules and regulations for hunting, fishing, trapping and environmental programs. The hearings are jointly run by the Department of Natural Resources and the 360-member Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
The WCC consists of five elected delegates from each county. The group is legislatively sanctioned to advise the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy.
This month’s 12,641 participants voted on 57 rule proposals and over 300 “floor resolutions” spread across Wisconsin’s 72 counties. The resolutions covered issues ranging from wolf hunting to the Green New Deal.
This was the second straight year the hearings were conducted fully online. The hearings traditionally were conducted in person in each county seat. Online participation became an option in 2019, when the hearings attracted 10,712 participants, 68% of whom voted online.
Although participation fell dramatically this year, the 12,641 tally ranks as the fourth largest turnout since 1970. It’s also the third straight year participation exceeded 10,000, a first in the hearings’ history.
WCC Chair Tony Blattler of Phillips said he wasn’t surprised or disappointed by lower participation in the hearings. A “perfect storm” driven by COVID-19 restrictions and a series of unpopular deer-hunting proposals by the NRB likely spurred 2020’s record turnout.
Blattler said no proposals on this year’s questionnaire generated similar attention.
Perhaps the closest thing to controversial was a WCC advisory question asking if the DNR should rescind protections for white or albino deer. White deer make up nearly 40% of the deer herd in small pockets of Wood and Winnebago counties, and there’s no biological reason to protect them. Even so, voters supported those protections, 4,895-4,704 (51-49%).
Most rule-change proposals involved regional fishing regulations on bass, walleyes, muskies and northern pike. However, participants voted 6,401-2,039 (76-24) to extend squirrel season from Jan. 31 till the end of February, and 5,237-1,405 (79-21) to allow falconry after 2 p.m. at the Bong State Recreational Area in Racine County.
In addition, even though NRB chair Frederic Prehn and Board member Terry Hilgenberg tongue-lashed Blattler and the WCC in February for including “environmental” issues on the questionnaire, those questions drew strong interest. Voters overwhelmingly said the DNR should evaluate the impacts of high-capacity wells on the public’s water resources, 7,737-953 (89-11); opposed the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline, 5,058-3,553 (59-41); and supported Congressional efforts to pass the Carbon Dividend Act, 5,123-3,495 (59-41).
Voters also supported creating a collaborative “scientific CWD working group,” increased use of cable-restraint devices for trapping, in-person training for parts of hunter education and ATV/UTV safety instruction, and a price increase for the Great Lakes trout and salmon stamp.
To view the votes on all questions and resolutions visit https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/about/wcc/springhearing.
Even though some proposals drew many “No Opinion” votes from participants, voters showed strong interest in floor resolutions about bears, wolves, coyotes, baiting, night-hunting and “killing contests.”
Blattler, in fact, thinks the hearings generated record numbers of floor resolutions. He said the WCC typically handles about 200 to 225 floor resolutions statewide after the hearings, but thinks that could double this year. The DNR was still determining the exact number of floor resolutions. At a minimum, April’s resolutions numbered 312, up from 161 in 2020.
Some of those became “shotgun resolutions,” meaning supporters around the state submitted identically worded questions for ballots in their home counties. If at least one county supports the resolution, a WCC committee must consider it as an advisory question for voters the next year.
Blattler said email and social media make it easier for groups to persuade friends and colleagues to submit and support floor resolutions, but he doesn’t consider those efforts harmful.
“Shotgun resolutions aren’t new,” he said. “Various groups have always used newsletters and special mailings to remind members about the hearings, and encourage them to support specific proposals. Either way, a county resident must submit the resolution, and at least one county must pass it before our Rules and Regulations Committee reviews it.”
Here are some floor resolutions likely to advance from the hearings:
-- Voters in 27 counties considered a ban on hunting wolves with hounds. Nine counties backed the ban: Adams, Dane, Milwaukee, Oneida, Ozaukee, Sauk, Vilas, Washburn and Waukesha.
-- Voters in 23 counties weighed a proposal to ban all “killing contests” for coyotes or other wildlife, with 17 rejecting it. Counties approving the resolution were Ashland, Bayfield, Dane, La Crosse, Milwaukee and Waukesha.
-- Voters in 20 counties backed a resolution urging Congress to pass the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. The act’s goal is to help at-risk wildlife species before they require protections under the federal Endangered Species List.
-- Fifteen counties considered a resolution to forbid further spending on fossil-fuel infrastructure work. Five of those counties — Brown, Dunn, Kenosha, Marathon and Waukesha — rejected the idea.
-- Fourteen counties unanimously backed tighter controls on PFAS chemicals.
-- Thirteen counties unanimously backed removing burbot (lawyers or eelpout) from the state’s “rough fish” category. The move requires legislative action.
-- Ten counties considered resolutions to ban or change bear-baiting regulations. Current law allows 10 gallons of bait to be placed for hunting from April 15 through the end of the autumn bear hunting season, the longest period in the U.S. Four counties rejected any changes: Fond du Lac, Outagamie, Rock and Waukesha.
-- Eight counties considered a resolution to forbid wolf hunting until a new science-based management plan is in place. Voters in Bayfield, Dane and Milwaukee counties OK’d the resolution.
-- Voters in 12 counties considered a resolution to ban night-time hunting for wolves and coyotes on public land. Five of those counties — Dane, Milwaukee, Oneida, Vilas and Waukesha — approved it.
-- Voters in Ashland, Dane and Milwaukee counties OK’d a resolution asking the WCC to endorse the Green New Deal, a proposal by Congressional Democrats that addresses climate change and income inequality.
-- Voters in Ashland, Dane and Milwaukee counties OK’d a resolution asking that WCC delegates be assigned based on population size, not by county.
-- Voters in Dane and Waukesha counties OK’d a proposal to ban compensation payments to bear hunters for hounds killed by wolves.
-- Richland County voted 34-12 to give hunters a free either-sex tag if a deer they shoot tests positive for CWD.
-- Sauk County voted 81-40 to support the “Payment for Positives” plan for combating CWD.
Patrick Durkin, @patrickdurkinoutdoors, is a free-lance writer who covers outdoors recreation in Wisconsin. Contact him at email@example.com, or at @patrickdurkinoutdoors.com on Facebook and Instagram.