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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Hunters, Anglers to Vote at Wisconsin's Annual Conservation Hearings

Wisconsin’s muskie season would last through Dec. 31 north of Highway 10, and the Winnebago System’s walleye bag limit would drop to three if rule changes proposed by the Department of Natural Resources become law.

Those are just two of 88 questions Wisconsinites will review Monday, April 8, during the state’s annual fish and wildlife hearings in all 72 counties. The hearings are a joint effort of the DNR and Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a group of 360 elected citizens who advise the agency.

The hearings start at 7 p.m. for in-person participants, and continue 72 hours for online input. This is the first year citizens can participate online. The questions are identical whether you weigh in online or in person, and all participants must sign in.

Wisconsin’s statewide conservation hearings date back roughly 80 years. The hearings’ average attendance since 1970 is 6,975 statewide, ranging from 3,527 in 2007 to 30,685 in 2000. Attendance has averaged 5,404 annually since 2010; down from 6,394 for 1970-1989, and 8,264 for 1990-2009.

Issues at this year’s hearings range from panfish size limits to pilot programs for shooting ranges. For example, if Northwoods muskie anglers get their way, they’ll fish a month beyond the current Nov. 30 closure, open water permitting. The revised season would last till Dec. 31 or until individual lakes freeze over. The proposal covers all waters north of Highway 10, as well as those bordering Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and those of Green Bay and Lake Michigan north of Manitowoc.

The DNR also wants to cut the daily walleye bag limit to three fish for lakes Winnebago, Poygan, Winneconne and Butte des Morts; and large sections of the adjoining Wolf and Fox rivers. This rule for the Winnebago System – Wisconsin’s largest lake/river complex – covers its waters in Calumet, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Marquette, Outagamie, Shawano, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago counties.

The Winnebago System’s largest walleye catches occur April through June during and after the fish spawn in marshes along the Wolf and upper Fox rivers, and return to Winnebago and its upriver lakes. The DNR said it’s common for anglers to catch five-fish limits during the walleye’s post-spawn feeding frenzy. Biologists think a three-fish limit would protect more fish when they’re most vulnerable.

Several other proposed rules address bass fishing around Wisconsin, including a proposal to waive lake-specific rules for catch-and-release bass tournaments. Some lakes have an 18-inch size limit for bass, which greatly limits what competitors can possess during tournaments.

The DNR proposes to let tournaments follow the statewide five-bass limit for fish measuring at least 14 inches. The proposal also requires tournaments to release all bass back into the waterway where they were caught. The agency says these exceptions would be easily enforced because tournaments require a DNR-issued permit.

Not all the proposed rule changes involve open water and popular species like bass, walleyes and muskies. One proposal asks whether the DNR should enforce size and design restrictions on spears used during the Winnebago System’s sturgeon season each February. Sturgeon spears are typically handcrafted, and some folks have built colossal spearheads with two or more long rows of tines to better ensure they hit the giant fish.

After surveying 2,000 license-holders and meeting with a citizens advisory group, the DNR is proposing two design restrictions: The spearhead can have only one row of tines, and that row can’t be wider than 18 inches.

The agency is also proposing about three dozen new fishing rules for individual lakes, streams and rivers across Wisconsin; as well as the boundary waters of the Mississippi River and Michigan’s UP.

The April 8 hearings also include nearly 40 “advice-only” questions from Conservation Congress committees. Among the advisory proposals is a pilot program called “Payments for Positives,” an experiment to control chronic wasting disease by offering hunters $750 to $1,250 for each CWD-infected deer they shoot in designated hotspots.

The “P4P” program would strive to remove more sick deer than the disease generates each year in hopes of curbing CWD’s spread. The experiment’s cost, depending on its size, would range from $900,000 to $1.4 million annually, which might be a bargain for Wisconsin’s $1.3 billion deer hunting economy.

The WCC is also revisiting two contentious deer hunting issues: baiting and carcass tags. The Legislature in 2017 eliminated a century-old law that required hunters to attach a state-issued tag to each deer they shoot. Legislators abolished that requirement without a hearing, and Gov. Scott Walker signed it into law despite vocal opposition from WCC leaders.

Meanwhile, deer baiting and feeding are now illegal in 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties because of CWD’s presence in wild or captive deer. Citing UW-Madison research that confirms baiting/feeding sites can become cesspools for prions and other disease-spreading contaminants, the WCC asks if the baiting/feeding ban should be statewide.

If P4P, carcass tags and a baiting/feeding ban win statewide approval, the ideas would still require legislative action. So would a proposal from the WCC’s environmental committee, which asks if Wisconsin should ban all lead-based ammunition and fishing gear.

Researchers have identified lead poisoning in at least 130 species of birds and wildlife, and think the main source is spent ammo and lost fishing tackle. Two questions ask if the WCC should work with the DNR, lawmakers and the Natural Resources Board to ban lead ammo for hunting; and ban lead in lures, sinkers and tackle weighing 1 ounce or less.

To answer the questions online, or locate your county’s hearing site, or read all 88 questions and their background material, visit DNR.WI.GOV and search the keywords “spring hearings.”

Wisconsin’s annual conservation hearings draw crowds averaging about 7,000 statewide. The hearings are joint efforts of the Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, which consists of five citizen-elected delegates from each county. The Congress advises the Department of Natural Resources on hunting, fishing and other conservation matters. (Patrick Durkin photos.)

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