Remember those 13 hunting and fishing bills unveiled Oct. 13 at the Capitol with hoopla, hollow talk and countless selfies as part of the Sporting Freedom Act, brought to you by Hunter Nation?
Well, four months have passed, and Gov. Tony Evers should hope the Republican-controlled Legislature does Hunter Nation’s bidding and passes the entire package. It would be an election-year gift from ham-fisted amateurs. He can then spend weeks vetoing those bills one by one like Gary Cooper playing Sergeant York at a Tennessee turkey shoot.
As he vetoes each bill, Evers should remind everyone that Wisconsin must reject this recent fad of creating fish and wildlife programs with inflexible laws. Until the past decade, our traditional practice was for citizen representatives in the Wisconsin Conservation Congress to craft programs with advice from the Department of Natural Resources, and then advise the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board on their proposals.
The Board then reviews the program, adjusts as needed, and sets the rules and policy. The Legislature then gives the package final review, tweaks and approval. As conditions change, the DNR and its governing board adjusts the program, and sends modifications to the Legislature for a final look and OK.
By patiently ending the Sportsman Freedom Act, Evers can show he understands what matters to hunters, anglers and other conservationists. Like most Democrats of recent vintage, Evers isn’t a hunter. But that’s all right. As four members of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board routinely prove, hunting licenses don’t ensure anyone’s words and deeds will benefit hunters and hunting.
Evers showed promise soon after Hunter Nation’s celebrity giggle-fest at the Capitol in October. Evers summoned leaders from Pheasants Forever, Trout Unlimited, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, National Wild Turkey Federation, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, Wisconsin Waterfowlers Association, Walleyes for Tomorrow, and the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructors Association to discuss the Sporting Freedom Act.
Then he met and listened to them much of the day Oct. 25 at the Capitol. No media were present, so you can’t accuse him of staging a press event .
In contrast, none of those decades-old conservation groups were invited to Hunter Nation’s Oct. 13 meet-and-greet. Neither did Hunter Nation and the GOP consult those groups beforehand when writing the Sporting Freedom Act.
Those are disrespectful unforced errors, especially coming from an out-of-state group that claims it’s “led by America's greatest hunters and patriots,” and that it’s “building a grassroots army to promote and protect the hunting way of life.”
Since then, our state’s hunting groups have rightfully panned the bills at legislative hearings. Most are simply bad ideas, whether it’s messing with Wisconsin’s popular six-period spring turkey season, dropping in-person certified instruction for hunter education, or requiring the DNR to raise and stock 200,000 pheasants and 100,000 brook trout annually without specifying how to pay for it.
All that bungling starts explaining itself if you flash back to 2013 and the disgraced, now-defunct group called the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin Foundation. You’ll recall that Republicans pushed the DNR to OK a $500,000 grant for United Sportsmen to recruit, train, retain and reactivate more hunters and anglers, even though its sketchy membership had no training or background for such work.
Until that point, United Sportsmen was known only for its work in state politics, including a dirty-tricks campaign in 2011 state Senate recall elections that directed registered Democrats to send absentee ballots to a phony address by a phony deadline.
Further, that $500,000 grant was to be funded with federal money the DNR received from the Pittman-Robertson Act. The grant was slipped into the state’s 2013-15 budget by then Assembly majority leader Scott Suder of Abbotsford without public notice. Suder further specified restrictions on grant applicants that ensured only United Sportsmen would qualify for the money.
When Gov. Scott Walker and DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp eventually realized federal funds couldn’t be used for the grant, they quietly shifted the burden to state taxpayers. They stood behind the United Sportsmen grant even after the foundation’s president, Andy Pantzlaff, falsely claimed it was a federally registered nonprofit group. Honest mistakes, Pantzlaff claimed. Walker finally killed the grant when learning Pantzlaff shot a bear illegally in 2005.
We’re now seeing a slightly improved version of the United Sportsmen embarrassment in Hunter Nation. Not coincidentally, a United Sportsmen board member and staff “educator” in 2013 was Luke Hilgemann, who has been Hunter Nation’s CEO since December 2019. In fact, Hilgemann served as Rep. Suder’s chief of staff from November 2010 till January 2012, when he was hired by the Americans for Prosperity to lobby for and direct its Wisconsin operations.
In addition, United Sportsmen’s chief lobbyist was Scott Meyer, who currently serves as Hunter Nation’s chief Wisconsin lobbyist.
Other footnotes: Suder wrote the 2012 law requiring a wolf hunt in Wisconsin whenever gray wolves aren’t on the federal endangered species list. Hilgemann and Hunter Nation then sued in January 2021 to force the hunt in late February 2021 that exceeded the state’s nontribal quota by 81%.
Further, one of Hunter Nation’s board members is Kris Kobach of Kansas. Kobach was Kansas’ secretary of state from 2011-2019, when he regularly claimed Kansas elections were rife with fraud and helped pass restrictive voting laws. Kansas ended up paying the American Civil Liberties Union $1.9 million in legal fees in September 2021 when Kobach couldn’t substantiate his voter-fraud claims.
It’s clear now that Hunter Nation isn’t a grassroots group that’s selflessly promoting hunting and ensuring its future. It’s a well-funded political organization that also sells $35 individual memberships with few benefits besides free T-shirts and lotteries.
To capitalize on the gifts Hunter Nation keeps giving, Evers must be bold and sensible. Here’s how: Evers should note that Wisconsin has the science and expertise at our universities and the DNR to work with the International Crane Foundation to create a sandhill crane hunting season — the one worthwhile idea the Sporting Freedom Act floated, yet bumbled. He should make clear a crane season has nothing to do with ending crop damage. It’s about wise use, outdoor recreation, and raising money for habitat work and research that ensures the future of all cranes, whether they be whoopers, sandhills or lesser sandhills.
Here’s a guarantee, Gov. Evers: If you champion that effort, no one screaming at you today will even notice sandhills are being hunted three years from now. Hunters and other sensible folks, however, will long recall you’re the one man who could sell a science-based plan to hunters and nonhunters alike.
Hunter Nation and the Legislature’s GOP delegation surely can’t.
Gov. Evers can help hunters while making Hunter Nation irrelevant by supporting a sandhill crane hunt and vetoing the Sporting Freedom Act. — Eric Christensen photo