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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Spring Hearings’ Votes are In, but Verdicts are Out

Two weeks and six days after Wisconsin’s conservation community filled out a record 64,943 online surveys during the annual fish and wildlife hearings, we finally saw the vote totals.

Cue Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.”

The Department of Natural Resources didn’t explain the nearly three-week time-out when releasing the results Wednesday, but this much is sure: We can’t fault Obama, the Electoral College or dangling chads in Florida.

The votes confirmed at least four things we knew before voting online April 13-16: Deer hunters prefer the nine-day gun season as is. They oppose any monkey-wrenching to the crossbow season. They still dislike earn-a-buck regulations. And they remain deadlocked over deer baiting.

We also learned hunters want a spring bear season, they support banning toxic shotgun ammo on state-owned or managed lands, and they doubt a two- or five-day break before November’s gun-deer season will trigger an avalanche of new hunters.

None of those results was surprising, which suggests voters fairly represented Wisconsin’s hunters, anglers, trappers and other outdoors-folks. But let’s hope Wisconsin never repeats the 2020 spring hearings.

The problems began with inept, vote-steering questions from the Natural Resources Board, those seven governor-appointed citizens who set DNR policy. The problems resumed after voting ended at 7 p.m. on April 16, and the DNR downloaded the polling data.

On April 17 the agency posted a short notice on its “Spring Hearings” website. It announced the polling drew over 60,000 participants, vowed to post the results when available, and thanked us for our patience.

Fade to black.

The DNR’s “Failure to Communicate” department then took over, ignoring routine requests for interviews or email explanations about the delays. Even when the DNR issued a press release May 6, it neither mentioned nor explained the 20-day information vacuum.

Folks naturally filled that void with accusations and conspiracies. Did NRB members seal the results until they could explain their loser deer-season questions? Or did the deep-state DNR jigger the votes to thwart the NRB’s desired results? Or maybe DNR Secretary Cole and NRB vice chair Greg Kazmierski were syncing their stories to justify ignoring every vote Krazy Kaz disliked.

That left Larry Bonde, chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, to address skeptics April 27 on the WCC’s Facebook page. The WCC is a 360-citizen body that advises the DNR and its governing board, and jointly sponsors the hearings. Ten days into the official review, Bonde wrote: “(The DNR only has three) people to verify all the results. No results will be released until we can be sure that what we put out is accurate.”

When a Facebook reader asked what must be verified in an online survey, Bonde replied: “(We want to ensure) people didn’t corrupt our survey with duplicate or automated responses. (The DNR has) to comb through all of them for improprieties.”

When contacted May 6, Bonde dismissed the conspiracies. He said no one in the WCC, NRB or DNR — except the three DNR staffers doing the “validation” work — knew the results until the night before their May 6 release. He said the DNR processed about 62,000 completed surveys and about 3,000 incomplete or unfinished surveys.

Bonde said the DNR tried to ferret out fraudsters and duplicates. “Some people took the survey three times and even gave their name and DNR ID number each time,” Bonde said. “They must have thought no one would check. Others voted from different computers at the same IP address. The DNR looked to see if their answers varied or stayed the same.”

Bonde didn’t know how many ballots the DNR checked or discarded, and no one from the DNR responded to emails or interview requests for such information May 6.

Bonde said he was “absolutely elated” by the record participation numbers, and feels confident the results were a “true reflection” of hunters and anglers’ attitudes.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, all voting was online. Voters first participated online during the 2019 hearings, which drew 7,310 internet and 3,402 in-person participants. The previous record turnout was 30,685 in 2000 when voters supported a mourning dove season. Average attendance from 1970 through 2019 was 6,904.

Bonde said several groups tried rallying members to sway April’s voting, but he saw no evidence anyone succeeded. He added: “Now that we know how popular this online option is, we have to work for a system that makes validating responses much easier.”

Perhaps the best way to ensure compliance is for the survey provider to issue ID numbers to each participant, who then use it to log in and answer the questions. Bonde said the DNR declined that option this year because of costs, given that the provider charges a fee for each ID issued.

Although online voting generates strong numbers, we should note it’s not flawless. This year’s totals couldn’t be compared with in-person results, but of 88 questions on last year’s survey, only four generated split decisions between in-person and online voting.

Online polling also largely excludes older voters, and rural areas with poor or no internet service. And despite the DNR’s efforts to weed out duplicates and imitators, no one can catch every fraudster. That’s one reason a 2010 study of online surveys warns: No data are better than bad data.

The DNR further hurt the hearings’ integrity with its baffling 20-day silent pout after balloting concluded. It also rendered several questions useless by not vetting them with professional survey writers. Consider these leading, amateurish questions from the NRB:

“Do you favor improving firearms deer hunting opportunities by extending the season to run 19 consecutive days?”

“Considering the additional deer hunting opportunity proposed in the previous question and, in order to simplify deer hunting season frameworks and to (sic) reduce user conflict that occurs during the holiday hunt, the holiday hunt could be eliminated.”

“Do you support restoring emphasis on Wisconsin’s firearms deer hunting opportunity by not having crossbow or archery buck tags (be) valid during the firearms season?”

Gee. I wonder how the NRB wanted us to vote on those gems?

It’s nice that hunters and anglers set participation records for the 2020 spring hearings, but arrogant, secretive bumbling by the NRB and DNR clouded the process and cast embarrassing doubt on final verdicts.

Voters in April’s fish and wildlife hearings nixed the Natural Resources Board's efforts to remake Wisconsin’s crossbow and firearms deer seasons. Patrick Durkin photo

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