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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wakeboats Again Dominate Voting in Wisconsin Fish, Wildlife Hearings

   Wakeboats struck another tsunami of opposition during Wisconsin’s statewide conservation hearings in mid-April, with over 70% of voters favoring restrictions on the fun but controversial wave-generating boats.

   Voters also supported a proposed ban on 360-degree forward-facing imaging cameras for fishing, but rejected a proposed ban on all lead-based ammunition by 2030.

   The hearings attracted 18,802 participants, who weighed in on 49 proposals. It was the first time since 2019 that attendees could attend the hearings and vote there. Roughly 1,000 people voted in person April 8, but most voted online April 10-13.

   Participation was up 63% from a year ago, when 11,556 voters weighed in through on-line polling. None of this year’s proposals are likely to advance without approval in a second round of voting at the April 2025 hearings.

   The annual spring hearings are a joint effort by the Department of Natural Resources and 360-member Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a citizen delegation that advises the seven-citizen Natural Resources Board on DNR policies. The WCC consists of five elected delegates from each county.

    WCC chairman Rob Bohmann of Racine said he was glad participants could once again attend in person to discuss the questions. “We haven’t had that opportunity for five years, and I hope it lasts,” he said. “Even though lots of people turned out in Bayfield and Dane counties, I still think too many people have grown complacent about citizen input.”

   Bohmann traces his worries to the state’s 1995 budget process. “People were more engaged when they knew the Natural Resources Board hired and fired the DNR secretary,” he said. “Everything started changing when Gov. (Tommy) Thompson made the DNR secretary a cabinet appointee, and then Gov. (James) Doyle didn’t return that job to the NRB when he had his chance in 2009.”

   Wisconsin’s annual conservation hearings began in the 1930s when Aldo Leopold and his contemporaries sought to engage citizens in the process. Each year since, citizens offer resolutions that can eventually become laws and rules for hunting, fishing, trapping and the environment.

   Wakeboat foes presented three advisory proposals for this year’s questionnaire. Wakeboats have ballast tanks in the stern that help generate surfing-size waves for wakeboarders, who ride the rollers close behind. The votes showed more opposition to wakeboats from a year ago, when 62% of spring-hearings voters supported restrictions on the activity. Critics charge that wakeboat waves erode shorelines, stir sediments and destroy aquatic vegetation, especially on small lakes.

   Opponents want lawmakers and the DNR to restrict the size of the wakes and where the boats can operate. The most restrictive proposal, which called for banning ballast systems on all boats, won by a 72-28 percentage. Another proposal, which passed 74-26, would ban all “intentional” big wakes on lakes less than 20 feet deep and smaller than 1,500 acres. The third idea, which passed 70-30, calls for wakeboat ballast systems to be easily inspected to ensure they’ve been drained of all water.

   Those questions drew a combined 43,744 “yes” and “no” responses, a 14,581 average per question.

   Only two other questions generated over 13,000 “yes” or “no” votes. By a 52-48 margin (6,786 to 6,290), voters supported a ban on 360-degree forward-facing underwater sonar technology for fishing. The ban won support in 36 counties, and was opposed in 35 and tied in one.

   Voters also rejected a proposal to outlaw all lead-based firearms ammo over the next six years, voting 53-47 (7,152 to 6,251). In county voting, the measure failed 54-17-1. The ban’s proponents note that lead contamination poisons eagles and other scavengers that ingest lead bullet fragments in gut piles after deer season.

   A proposal to ban underwater lights to attract fish at night also generated high interest, with 12,990 people voting 73-27 for the ban. Support was overwhelming at the county level, 71-1.

   Likewise, nearly 12,500 people voted 77-23 to ban shining wildlife at night from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31, the second straight year the idea received strong support.

   In other questions that drew great interest, participants …

   -- Voted 57-43 to allow trolling three lines statewide. The vote carried 60-11-1 in county voting, with Burnett, Dane, Florence, Forest, Iron, Milwaukee, Oneida, Ozaukee, Richland, Vilas and Waushara counties opposed; and Price, tied.

   -- Voted 95-5 to support legislation to again allow people to cross railroad tracks to reach public lands and waters.

   -- Voted 53-47 to set the base trout regulation at a five-fish bag limit with no minimum size.

   -- Voted 79-21 to support an “awareness campaign” to help people understand the toll roaming cats have on wild birds.

   -- Voted 83-17 to outlaw the use of the herbicide 2,4D in all state waters.

   -- Voted 79-21 to reduce the price of patron licenses from $165 to $130 for seniors.

   -- Voted 55-45 to create an “asset tag” to license all canoes, kayaks, ice shanties and non-motorized boats so owners can be identified in emergency situations.

   -- Voted 91-9 to name monarchs the state butterfly.

   -- Voted 88-12 to urge the DNR to work with the Bluebird Restoration Association to increase nesting-box monitors and better educate people about pesticide impacts on birds.

   -- Voted 82-18 to forbid energy companies from mowing below powerlines during summer.

   -- Voted 74-26 to let hunters quarter their deer in the field and leave behind inedible parts.

   -- Voted 88-12 to enact specific limitations on PFAS compounds in surface water, groundwater, fish and wildlife to better ensure human health.

   -- Voted 55-45 to allow group archery hunting in farmland deer zones.

   -- Voted 78-22 to forbid commercial fishing for lake trout in Lake Michigan.

   To see all the questions, results and citizen-written resolutions, visit the joint DNR/Wisconsin Conservation Congress website, .

   Wisconsin residents made up over 92% of the 18,802 people answering this year’s questionnaire. This marked the sixth straight year the hearings attracted over 10,000 participants, thanks largely to online-only voting, the only option from 2020 through 2023.

   A record 64,943 citizens voted online in 2020 during the COVID-19 shutdown, largely to crush unpopular deer-season proposals offered by the NRB. Since offering on-line voting in 2019, the hearings have attracted an average of 24,472 participants annually.

   The largest in-person attendance came in April 2000, when 30,685 voters rallied to support a mourning dove season, which has been held each fall since without fanfare. From 1970 through 2019, only three other spring hearings attracted over 10,000 in-person attendees: 13,350 in 1975, 11,007 in 2002 and 13,126 in 2005.

   WCC delegates will review the hearings’ votes and floor resolutions approved by counties when meeting May 10-11 in Appleton at their annual convention. Citizens will again vote on formal rule proposals at next April’s statewide hearings.

  Bohmann said he’s open to returning for another year as the WCC’s chairman. He has served in the WCC since the early 2000s, including a previous 5-year stint as chairman.

Participants in Wisconsin’s fish and wildlife hearings in mid-April rejected a proposal to ban all lead-based ammunition for hunting by 2030. Ban proponents often cite concerns about lead poisoning in avian scavengers that feed on gut piles after deer season. — Patrick Durkin photo

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