Online Spring Hearings Tackle Deer Hunt, Lead Shot
One year ago Wisconsin allowed citizens to participate online in its tradition-bound fish and wildlife hearings for the first time in the hearings’ 85-year history.
Participants in April 2019 had two options: vote online by tablet, computer or smartphone; or grab a pencil and mark their ballot in person at one of 72 county meetings. Little did hunters, anglers, trappers and other conservationists realize they wouldn’t have that in-person option this year. The COVID-19 pandemic canceled all upcoming in-person meetings and balloting.
Instead, starting at 7 p.m. on April 13, voters have 72 hours to answer the questions online. Simply visit the Department of Natural Resources’ home page — dnr.wi.gov — type “Spring Hearings” into its search window, click the “2020 Spring Hearing Online” tab, and answer the ballot’s 55 questions.
Participants have until 7 p.m. on April 16 to finish. Don’t despair if you lose power or get called away unexpectedly. Just go back online using the same device, and resume where you left off. Your votes won’t be filed until you hit the “submit” button.
To preview the questions and background information, visit the DNR’s “Spring Hearings” page and click the “2020 Spring Hearings Questionnaire” tab to download the 40-page file. If you have questions about the online process, click the “Online input FAQs” tab.
Based on the popularity of online voting a year ago, most participants prefer the online option anyway. Of the 10,712 participants in the April 2019 statewide hearings, 7,310 (68%) voted online.
In-person attendance at last year’s hearings plunged to a record low 3,402, but online voting pushed participation to its fifth largest input of the past 50 years. Only twice before since 1970 did attendance fall short of 4,000: 3,830 in 1997 and 3,527 in 2007.
In contrast, 2019’s participation total 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. In-person attendance averaged 5,657 from 2009 through 2018.
The annual spring hearings are joint efforts of the DNR and Wisconsin Conservation Congress, which consists of five citizen-elected delegates from each county. The WCC is legislatively sanctioned to advise the DNR’s seven-citizen Natural Resources Board on agency policy.
Voting outcomes differed little in 2019 between online and in-person participants. Of 88 questions on last year’s survey, only four issues generated split decisions between in-person and online voting.
The WCC, DNR and its governing board combined to place 55 questions on this year’s survey, 15 fewer than average the past 10 years. The questions generating the most talk since their release at the Board’s Jan. 21-22 meeting come from its chair, Frederick Prehn of Wausau, and Board vice chair, Greg Kazmierski of Pewaukee.
Prehn and Kazmierski hope to eliminate the nine-day holiday firearms deer season; extend November’s general firearms deer season by 10 days, thus eliminating the muzzleloading season; eliminate all hunting except for waterfowl Monday through Friday before the firearms deer season; and restrict crossbow hunting to October and December for those younger than age 60.
Mark Noll of Alma is chairman of Buffalo County’s WCC delegation, and longtime chairman of the WCC’s big-game committee. When contacted April 2, Noll expressed profound frustration with Prehn and Kazmierski’s “deer-season meddling.”
“The question I’m hearing most is whether we can impeach members of the Natural Resources Board,” Noll said. “We don’t have effective tools for reducing deer herds, and the Board keeps ignoring chronic wasting disease. And for reasons no one understands, most Board members treat Kaz like he’s a deer expert, which he’s not. Far from it.”
Board members put at least two sensible pro-hunting questions on the ballot, however: Should Wisconsin ban deer baiting statewide, given that it’s currently banned in 52 of 72 counties? Also, should Wisconsin offer a spring bear season? It’s already illegal to shoot a sow with cubs, and the DNR reliably manages the fall bear season, so why not expand bear-hunting opportunities for those lucky enough to draw a tag?
The DNR, meanwhile, is seeking feedback on whether to expand bans on lead-based hunting ammo on state-owned lands to reduce lead poisoning in wildlife. The agency fears toxic lead buildups are more likely on heavily hunted DNR-managed lands. It offers seven options for reducing lead poisoning in waterfowl, game birds, and other wildlife.
In the explanation preceding those questions, the DNR writes: “Cases of lead poisoning in bald eagles and scavengers spike dramatically during fall hunting seasons due to the accessibility of gut piles and carcasses from harvested deer. If ingested, relatively small amounts of lead can poison birds; two or three pellets are fatal in some species.”
Therefore, the DNR is asking if nontoxic pellets, bullets or shotgun slugs should be required on all state-owned and managed lands, except for shooting ranges. If that sounds too restrictive, it asks if nontoxic pellets should be required to hunt pheasants, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys or small-game animals on state-owned lands.
It’s already illegal to hunt mourning doves on state lands with lead pellets, but the DNR is asking if that ban should be statewide. Lead ammo is already banned on over 20,000 acres of publicly hunted federal lands, and on all national wildlife refuges in Wisconsin when hunting migratory and upland game bird species, including wild turkeys.
Another change on this year’s ballot is a “No Opinion” option for most questions. The DNR and WCC ask participants to mark that box rather than skip the question. That makes it clear that participants didn’t overlook the question.
The DNR will post county and statewide results on its website as soon as they’re compiled. The April 2019 tallies were available about a week after voting closed, but the agency isn’t predicting when they’ll be posted this year. Most DNR staff are working from home because of the pandemic, and the agency won’t know the volume of the workload until voting closes April 16.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Wisconsin DNR to cancel in-person participation for the statewide fish and wildlife hearings April 13. All polling will be done online for 72 hours starting at 7 p.m. that day. — Patrick Durkin photo