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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Should the DNR Extend Training Seasons for Hunting Dogs?

Wisconsin’s rich mix of houndsmen, bird-dog hunters and conservation organizations are quietly debating whether the Department of Natural Resources should relax or eliminate some regulations on springtime dog-training.

One reason for their low-key argument is that few people outside those communities know the subject well enough to argue specifics. In fact, most Wisconsinites probably don’t know that hunting dogs have a “school year,” complete with a spring break.

All states in the Great Lakes region regulate hunting-dog training in spring to reduce risks to ground-nesting birds and nursing wildlife. Unfortunately, even dog owners who know those laws and hold the proper permits find the regulations confusing.

Further, I’d wager 99% of Wisconsin’s everyday dog owners don’t know that dog-training laws apply to them, too. For instance, did you know you must keep your dog leashed within 8 feet when it’s sniffing and snorking around most state-owned lands April 15 to July 31? Did you also know the leash law doesn’t apply if you’re on county, federal or private lands?

Meanwhile, hunters who own trailing hounds can train them on free-roaming bears statewide July 1 to Aug. 31. That means this catch-and-release bear season overlaps the leash requirement on state-owned lands during July. But hounds don’t have to be leashed for it. Instead, they must be tattooed or wear a collar with their owner’s name and address.

Another dog-training law forbids hunting or chasing free-roaming animals with a dog in the state’s northern third from May 1 to June 30, the so-called “quiet period.” That zone’s southern boundary runs along portions of U.S. Highway 8, and state highways 64, 29 and 22.

The quiet-period law was written to control bear-hound training, and covers all land, whether it’s owned by individuals, or the county, state or federal governments. The quiet period doesn’t apply in Wisconsin’ southern two-thirds, even though ground-nesting birds, waterfowl, whitetail fawns, and other young wildlife abound from spring to early summer.

In other words, Wisconsin has regulated dog-training periods starting April 15, May 1 and July 1, with rules often changing by region, property lines or special-use permits. And we haven’t even mentioned rules about using live animals for dog training, or how to avoid restrictions by training your dog within fenced areas.

Given all the rules, variables and exceptions, no wonder the DNR’s dog-training web page contains more FAQ and rule-specific links than you’ll click in a dog’s lifetime.

And no wonder voters at April’s statewide fish and wildlife hearings rendered contradicting verdicts on back-to-back dog-training questions. One asked if Wisconsin should end the leash requirement on state lands, and the other asked if the state should rid the Northwoods of its May-June quiet period.

By a 55-45 percentage voters said we should keep the April 15 to July 31 leash requirement on state lands. But one question later they voted in a landslide (69-31) to abolish the North’s quiet period.

This apparent confusion left the DNR, hunting-dog groups, Wisconsin Conservation Congress, and others no clear guidance. On a related question, voters supported an idea to conduct a two-year research project about the impacts of dog training and dog trials on nesting birds from April 15 to July 31.

But would a scientific study prove anything or change anyone’s mind? Based on recent DNR research about public attitudes toward wolves, and previous DNR research on the impacts of predators on fawns, we know most people won’t accept findings that differ from their beliefs and personal experiences. Majorities of Wisconsinites told the DNR they want a healthy wolf population, but those who dislike wolves rejected that survey. And even though DNR researchers documented bears and bobcats as the top fawn killers in the Northwoods’ study area, many folks still insist it’s wolves.

Besides, it might be difficult to assess the impacts of dogs and hounds on young birds and mammals. As Carolyn A. Sime wrote in a 1999 Montana study, animal-welfare laws and guidelines for research animals make it hard to evaluate how wildlife reacts to passing or harassing dogs.

Fair point. Imagine an oversight committee reacting to a newsreel showing a researcher’s wirehaired pointing Griffon mauling a fawn or inhaling a paddle of ducklings. I doubt they’ll feel better when told, “But they died for science.”

Given such uncertainties, no one expects a quick end to dog-training’s knotty issues. A May teleconference involving the Wisconsin Sharptail Grouse Society and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which supports ending the quiet period, ended without resolution.

Suspicions abound within the dog-hunting communities and their conservation affiliates. Bear-hound hunters say the North’s quiet period is obsolete because their training season is restrictive enough to cover bird-nesting and wildlife-nursing concerns. Houndsmen also contend that trailing hounds aren’t interested in poults, fledglings and fawns, and simply blow past them.

Meanwhile, waterfowlers and upland-bird hunters say houndsmen just want to expand their training season, and downplay their dogs’ impacts on young birds and wildlife. The bird hunters say all dogs sometimes kill what they encounter, no matter how closely they’re watched.

In addition, the WSGS says sharptails are struggling enough in their dwindling Northwoods habitats without more springtime dog training. They concede that trailing hounds might not harm many young birds and mammals, but worry that unskilled dog owners with undisciplined mutts would increasingly roam spring woods if the DNR ended the quiet period.

In fact, many upland-bird hunters favor extending the quiet period statewide. They contend it would reduce confusion, and more closely resemble laws in neighboring states. Michigan forbids dog training on state game areas and wildlife areas until July 8, Minnesota forbids dog training on public lands until July 15; as does Iowa, July 16; and Illinois, Sept. 1.

So here’s a prediction: The DNR might eventually simplify some dog-training complexities, but it won’t reduce or end protections for nesting birds and nursing fawns during spring and summer.

Granted, dog training likely causes little harm across vast landscapes, given the attention good hunters pay their dogs. But dog training is one factor the DNR can control.

In contrast, the agency is powerless to rid the landscape of coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, and every other nest raider that countless dog-folks blame for game-population cycles.

Wisconsin’s hunting-dog training rules are complex, confusing and inconsistent. Improving them, however, proves equally challenging. — Patrick Durkin photo

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