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Attendance Down, Input Up for Wisconsin's Spring Conservation Hearings

In-person attendance plunged to a record low 3,402 at Wisconsin’s conservation hearings April 8, but the state’s first foray into online voting for the annual surveys spurred responses from 7,310 voters, providing the hearings’ fifth largest input of the past 50 years.


The spring hearings are held in all 72 counties, and are joint efforts of the Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Conservation Congress. The WCC, comprised of five citizen-elected delegates from each county, is legislatively sanctioned to advise the DNR’s seven-citizen Natural Resources Board on agency policy.


Citizens could vote in person at the hearings, which began at 7 p.m. in each county seat, or go online to vote through April 11.


Only twice before in the past five decades has the hearings’ attendance slid below 4,000: 3,830 in 1997 and 3,527 in 2007. Similarly, this year’s total of 10,712 voters has been surpassed only four times since 1970: 30,685 in 2000, 13,350 in 1975, 13,126 in 2005, and 11,007 in 2002. Attendance averaged 5,657 from 2009 through 2018.


Of the 88 questions on this year’s survey, onlyfour generated split decisions between in-person and online voting. Larry Bonde of Kiel, the WCC’s chairman, was pleased to see so few split decisions.


“The system obviously didn’t fall apart,” Bonde said. “The online results pretty much mirrored in-person voting, so that was a relief. Some groups rallied their members to oppose advisory questions on banning lead in ammo and fishing tackle, but overall there were few attempts to play with the results.”


Bonde said he was impressed that nearly 11,000 people voted. He declined to blame the record-low in-person attendance on online voting.


“It’s just one year’s results, so until I see a trend I won’t get too broken up about it,” Bonde said. “I’m sure online voting played a role, but we were also competing with a beautiful evening to be outside, and the NCAA basketball championship had (former UW-Green Bay star) Tony Bennett coaching Virginia. It’s hard to compete with all that, so this was a huge success.”


Online voting changed the final outcome in two of the four split decisions. Here’s the breakdown:


-- A WCC advisory question asked if trappers should be allowed to use fencing to steer muskrats into a trap. The total vote rejected the idea, 3,583 to 3,001 (54-46%), but in-person voters narrowly approved it, 1,192 to 1,187 (50.1-49.9%). Online voters prevailed in rejecting it, 2,396 to 1,809 (57-43%).


-- To simplify a hunting regulation, the DNR proposed eliminating minimum caliber requirements for pellet guns used to hunt small game. After all, .17 caliber guns are legal and nothing smaller is available commercially. Even so, the total vote rejected simplifying the rule, 4,301 to 4,112 (51-49%), but in-person voters OK’d it, 1,485 to 1,390 (52-48%). Online voters prevailed in rejecting the change, 2,911 to 2,627 (53-47%).


Online votes didn’t flip the in-person results on two questions seeking bans on lead in ammunition and fishing tackle. Here’s the breakdown:

-- A WCC advisory question asked if Wisconsin should ban all lead-based ammunition. The total vote rejected a ban, 4,297 to 3,868 (53-47%), but online voters approved the idea, 2,758 to 2,520 (52-48%). In-person voters prevailed in rejecting the ban, 1,777 to 1,110 (62-38%).

-- A WCC advisory question asked if Wisconsin should ban lead-based fishing tackle weighing 1 ounce or less. The total vote rejected a ban, 4,237 to 3,931 (52-48%), but online voters favored a ban, 2,749 to 2,540 (52-48%). In-person voters prevailed in rejecting the ban, 1,697 to 1,182 (59-41%).


Advisory questions are for advice only. If approved at the WCC’s annual convention May 10-11 in Appleton, they could return as proposed rules as early as the 2020 statewide hearings.


Bonde said one of the hearings’ biggest surprises was solid support for a pilot program called “Payments for Positives” to combat chronic wasting disease. The proposal, crafted by retired DNR biologist Mike Foy, passed 4,408 to 3,265 (57-43%) overall, with 53-47 in-person and 60-40 online majorities. The plan’s proposed costs ranged from $900,000 to $1.4 million, and would require legislative approval.


“The folks behind that idea worked hard informing people how it would work,” Bonde said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen as much effort go into helping people understand a proposal. Whether it goes any further is hard to say. Expensive pilot programs are tough sells in the Legislature.”


Sturgeon spearing on Lake Winnebago and its three upriver lakes also generated debates. Voters supported (5,892 to 1,207, or 83-17%) a proposed DNR rule to define maximum sizes and configurations for spears. They also backed advisory questions to outlaw underwater cameras (5,418 to 2,138, or 72-28%) and electronic fish locators (4,773 to 2,750, or 63-37%) inside spearing shacks.


“For those of us living near the Winnebago System, sturgeon spearing arguments are almost getting hostile,” Bonde said. “Those votes certainly suggest a majority of people view sturgeon spearing as an archaic activity that should remain primitive. It will be interesting to review how the counties around those lakes (Winnebago, Butte des Morts, Winneconne and Poygan) voted on those questions. I think those questions will come back as rule proposals next April.”


Voters also …

-- Favored a proposed rule to reduce the walleye bag limit on the Winnebago System from five to three fish;

-- Favored an advisory question to restore deer-tagging requirements;

-- Favored a question to impose a statewide ban on deer baiting and feeding;

-- Rejected a question to allow hunters to transport cocked, unloaded and uncased crossbows inside a vehicle;

-- Favored a question to allow cocked, uncased crossbows to be placed atop stationary vehicles;

-- Favored a question to designate the hickory as the state nut;

-- Favored a question to restore funding to buy more public lands;

-- Favored a question to restrict hunting licenses to those age 10 and older;

-- Favored a question to increase fees for inland trout stamps;

-- Favored a question to increase the price of fishing licenses to pay for cold-water hatcheries;

-- Favored a question to require upland bird hunters to wear blaze pink or orange;

-- Favored a question to increase nonresident application fees to $40 for bear and bobcat tags.


No votes at spring hearings are final. All proposed rules and advisory questions are reviewed by the WCC’s 360 delegates at its May convention. Some proposals also require a second vote at the April 2020 statewide hearings, and still others would require legislation.

Larry Bonde of Kiel is chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, and a champion of the WCC’s efforts to expand public feedback through online voting. (Patrick Durkin photo)

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