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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wakeboats, Deer Hunting Dominate Wisconsin's Annual Hearings

A tsunami of opposition to wakeboard boats swept through Wisconsin’s statewide conservation hearings in mid-April, with 62% of voters favoring restrictions on these popular wave-generating boats.

“Wakeboats” — which have ballast tanks in the stern to help generate surfing-size waves when towing wakeboarders — have generated divisive debates in recent years, especially near shore and on small lakes. In response, wakeboat foes presented six advisory questions for the statewide hearings, which attracted 11,556 participants during online voting April 10-13.

The state’s 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.

Wisconsin’s annual conservation hearings began in the 1930s. Citizens are encouraged to offer resolutions for policymakers’ consideration, and tell them what they think of proposed laws and rules for hunting, fishing, trapping and the environment.

Wakeboat opponents want lawmakers and the DNR to restrict the size of their wakes and where they operate. The six wakeboat questions drew a combined 58,344 responses, of which 62% favored restrictions, 30% opposed them, and 8% stayed neutral. With an average 8,970 “yes” or “no” votes for those questions, wakeboats generated more responses than any other issue in the 76-item questionnaire.

Questions about November’s firearms deer season generated the second-most interest, with 8,775 responses to three options offered by the WCC. Not surprisingly, over 65% of deer hunters want to stick with the traditional nine-day season and 10-day muzzleloading hunt that follows. Only 16% favored switching to a 16-day firearms season and 10-day muzzleloading hunt, while 19% favored a 19-day hunt open to all firearms and archery gear.

Only two other questions generated over 8,000 “yes” or “no” votes. Voters supported a free fishing weekend for veterans by an 88-12 percentage, and they favored banning all shining of wildlife from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31, by a 74-26 percentage.

Voters also narrowly rejected a proposal to expand October’s youth firearms deer season from two days to four days, 51-49. In contrast, they overwhelmingly supported expanding April’s two-day youth turkey season to four days, 63-37.

WCC chairman Rob Bohmann of Racine said those two votes didn’t surprise him. “Deer make people feel territorial, even if it involves a kid,” Bohmann said. “They’re always worried that someone will shoot ‘their deer.’ You never hear them say, ‘my turkey,’ but they always say, ‘my deer.’”

Voters overwhelmingly favored (83-17) making the statewide walleye/sauger bag limit three per day on all inland waters. They also favored (69-31) issuing an either-sex replacement tag to hunters who shoot deer that test positive for chronic wasting disease. Hunters have long received replacement tags for shooting CWD-positive bucks.

Those urging a winter spearfishing season for northern pike, however, were thwarted 52-48; while those hoping to lengthen the beaver-trapping season prevailed, 64-36.

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

Wisconsin residents made up over 93% of the 11,556 people answering this year’s questionnaire. That marks the fifth straight year the hearings attracted over 10,000 participants, and the fourth straight year of online-only voting. When online voting began in 2019, 3,402 people (32%) attended the hearings in person.

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. The state’s largest in-person conservation hearings attracted 30,685 in April 2000 when voters rallied to support a mourning dove season, which has been held each fall since without fanfare.

The April 2022 hearings rallied 28,176 participants, largely to support capping wolf numbers at 350. Although participation this year fell far short of last year’s turnout, it’s the seventh largest since the DNR started tracking attendance in 1970.

Bohmann wants Wisconsin to offer in-person voting in 2024, and remains unhappy the DNR only allowed “open-house” meetings this year, which didn’t offer voting.

“I’m hoping we’ll have the in-person voting option from now on,” Bohmann said. “Not everyone has a smartphone or home computer to vote online. And even if they do, they still like to come in, roll up their sleeves and have honest discussions so they can learn from each other and hear what the neighbors think. I prefer the ‘no input left behind’ option.”

WCC delegates will review the hearings’ results when meeting May 11-13 in Oshkosh at their annual convention. The WCC will then send proposed rules to the NRB for action, and submit other ideas as formal rule proposals for next year’s hearings.

WCC committees at the convention will also review at least 208 “floor resolutions” approved by voters in several counties. Citizens or citizen groups write these resolutions, which their county must approve to advance to statewide votes. Voters advanced a record 556 resolutions during the 2022 hearings.

So-called “shotgun resolutions” — a coordinated effort to submit the same question in multiple counties simultaneously — were again popular. These included a resolution to promote “nonlethal predator control programs” to farmers, which advanced in 35 counties; a resolution to remove “administrative barriers” to Knowles-Nelson Stewardship programs, which advanced in 32 counties; a resolution to teach the dangers of lead in hunter-education classes, which advanced in 32 counties; and a resolution to teach “keep cats indoors education” advanced in 18 counties.

Meanwhile, five questions from the WCC’s environmental committee drew broad support. Voters …

— favored (89-11) more testing and stricter standards for PFAS, including in biosolids and groundwater;

— favored (85-15) reinstating the 1997 “prove-it-first” mining law, or Act 171, which the Legislature repealed on a party-line vote in 2017;

— favored (61.5-38.5) restricting lead-based fishing tackle;

— favored (71-29) ending lead poisoning in bald eagles;

— and favored (89.5-10.5) better groundwater monitoring for all concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

In other high-participation action, voters …

— rejected (61-39) allowing bobcat hunting at night;

— rejected (53.5-46.5) allowing people to use infrared lights to scan for predators;

— favored (69-31) requiring grouse hunters to buy a grouse stamp;

— favored (68-32) allowing hunters to process deer, bear and elk before removing them from the field;

— favored (69-31) requiring upland bird hunters to wear blaze orange;

— favored (83-17) raising trapper education fees from $12 to $20;

— favored (69.5-30.5) making junior antlerless deer tags valid on public and private land;

— favored (80.5-19.5) allowing people to shoot a bear attacking a domestic animal on private land;

— favored (67-33) allowing anglers to fish with a hook and line while monitoring a sturgeon-spearing hole;

— and favored (85-15) imposing a wanton-waste law.

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.

“I’ll serve if that’s how our members vote,” Bohmann said. “I don’t know if anyone else is interested in the job right now, but sometimes you really don’t know another person’s potential until you give them the chance to lead.”

Wakeboats have triggered conflicts on many Wisconsin waterways, spurring six suggestions at statewide conservation hearings for regulating their use.

— Patrick Durkin photo

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