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  • Patrick Durkin

Time to Shame Wisconsin DNR’s Policy-Setting Board

You’ll have to excuse deer hunters around Wisconsin for faking a sneeze and blowing profanities into their elbows when asked about the state’s Natural Resources Board.


Hundreds of them first raised their hand in 2014 to volunteer as unpaid representatives on the state’s new system of County Deer Advisory Councils. For eight straight springs these men and women met with constituents, heard their comments, read their thoughts, and often endured their abuse while crafting plans to manage their counties’ deer herds.


Many of them also represent their counties on the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, ensuring they hear the good, bad and ugly about nearby lakes, woods and marshes. And just to ensure wide representation, each CDAC includes county-dwelling “stakeholders” who either hunt, farm, serve tourists, grow trees, untangle deer-vehicle collisions, or all of the above.


No matter their chief interest, those who chair those CDACs desire healthy deer herds balanced to their county’s needs and varying habitats.


So, imagine their irritation June 23 when hearing NRB chair Fred Prehn, while running a meeting hundreds of miles away in Madison, say the Board doesn’t have to “rubber stamp” the CDACs’ advice. We also note that Prehn, a Wausau dentist who owns a cranberry farm in Tomah, was chairing that meeting eight weeks after his NRB term expired.


For further context, Prehn was speaking seconds after NRB vice chair Greg Kazmierski claimed six Northwoods CDACs — Bayfield, Douglas, Iron, Langlade, Oneida and Sawyer — failed their residents. “These CDACs totally went against the public input, and there was no justifiable reason to go against it,” Kazmierski said.


Sigh.


No wonder many CDAC representatives question the competence and basic etiquette of the NRB, the seven-citizen board that sets policy for the Department of Natural Resources. Kazmierski earlier claimed he did a “deep dive” into those counties’ deer data and public comments before recommending 50% cuts in their antlerless deer quotas, which the NRB OK’d on a contentious 4-3 vote.


Deep dive, huh? Board members Bill Smith of Shell Lake and Marcy West of La Farge pushed back, noting that CDACs don’t simply tally positive and negative comments from online questionnaires and file the results.


Still, why didn’t any of Kazmierski’s six NRB colleagues or DNR Secretary Preston Cole ask him if his “deep dive” included phone calls or Zoom meetings with the offending CDAC chairs? The DNR’s website posts their email addresses and phone numbers, and they answer or call back.


Kazmierski called none of those people, of course. Neither did he call 11 of them in June 2020 before torpedoing their plans. He also ignores CDAC chairs elsewhere who request more herd-control “tools,” and remind him that chronic wasting disease poses more risk to deer — the state’s most popular, charismatic and profitable wildlife resource — than a few extra antlerless tags in public forests.


And yet Kazmierski had the gall to publicly smear those six men by claiming they rejected their residents’ input for “no justifiable reason.”


One of those men, Sawyer County’s Rick Olson of Winter, said his CDAC considers every comment received, which includes form letters and cut-and-paste emails from inside and outside the county. They also consult biologists and foresters to better understand the deer herd’s needs and habitats.


To further understand things, Olson and fellow CDAC members toured nearby forests between their March and May meetings to assess tree and plant regeneration firsthand. “We thought we were seeing good deer habitat, but as you delve deeper you see it’s mostly moosewood (striped maple), and semi-invasives like ironwoods, or blue beech,” Olson said. “Young oaks are browsed off and indistinguishable. We also don’t have the hazel-brush and red-osier dogwood we used to have.”


Olson continued: “If turning the herd around were as simple as reducing antlerless quotas, which were already part of our recommendation, we’d get results within three years if the habitat is good. But turning around old, overbrowsed forest habitats can take decades. We keep all that in mind for our recommendations. To form an opinion, you must take in the whole shot. But those with a gripe will gripe. I keep that in mind when some (NRB) member decides carte blanche that his deer metrics are better than ours.”


Douglas County’s CDAC chair, Al Horvath of Superior, denies his group ignored public input. “After we made our preliminary recommendation, the online survey showed 49.1% supported it and 50.8% did not,” he said. “You can’t get a whole hell of a lot closer. We listened to everyone, but we can’t please everyone.


“Go read my minutes from our preliminary meeting,” Horvath continued. “You’ll find eight pages supporting our contentions. I put five days of prep into our recommendation, and I can reference harvest data back to 1950. I turn those numbers upside down and inside out to make sure they’re right. How can someone minimize or change that work without checking with me? I know they have that authority, but their reasoning is erroneous.”


Bayfield County’s CDAC chair, Kevin Schanning of Iron River, said the public-comment process is not a binding popular vote. “It’s important information we consider, but it’s also a snapshot,” he said. “We know some people hunting the Chequamegon National Forest have 50 years of experience there. But they’re probably hunting areas with 80- to 100-year old forest cover. It’s no longer deer habitat, so they no longer see many deer. Lowering the antlerless quota won’t change that.”


Here’s a suggestion for the NRB’s June 2022 meeting, assuming Kazmierski again comes bearing insults and last-minute changes: Fire up a PowerPoint presentation and ask him to distinguish hazel-brush from alder thickets, striped maple from birch saplings; or ironwood from red-oak saplings, or even hemlock needles from cedar fronds.


Next, give the same quiz to Kazmierski’s NRB enablers: Squatter Prehn, Bill Bruins and Terry Hilgenberg. And then grade everyone’s answers.


Finally, whether he passes or fails, ask Kazmierski if he called every CDAC chair in the affected counties. If not, why? Put him on the record. Hold him accountable.


And maybe then vote on Kazmierski’s amendment, or table it for further review.


Show the hunting public who truly disregards them. Shame Kazmierski with certainty.

Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board insulted the state’s civic-minded deer hunters by rejecting recommendations by County Deer Advisory Councils without consulting them. — Patrick Durkin photo

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