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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wis. Conservation Hearings 2022: Another Record-Setting Event

Wisconsin’s outdoor community favored a 350-wolf population goal, and stricter safeguards for hunter education and drinking water when voting April 11-14 during the state’s annual spring conservation hearings.

Participants also opposed making kayakers and canoeists pay fees and register their vessels with the Department of Natural Resources. Voters were evenly divided, however, on requiring paddlers to put their identification information on nonmotorized watercraft, similar to how citizens must identify traps, treestands and icefishing shelters.

Those ideas were among the top vote-generating issues on this year’s 63-item questionnaire. The statewide hearings attracted 28,176 participants, of whom 27,519 (98%) were residents. This was the third straight year that COVID-19 forced the hearings to be held fully online. The hearings were held in person in all 72 county seats until the state added online options in 2019. The 2019 hearings attracted 10,712 participants, 68% of whom voted online.

Last week’s turnout was 2.3 times higher than in April 2021, when 12,641 participated. A record 64,943 citizens voted in 2020, spurred by opposition to several unpopular deer-season proposals written by the Natural Resources Board, the seven citizens who set DNR policy. This year’s hearings generated the third largest turnout since 1970. It’s also the fourth straight year participation exceeded 10,000, a first in the hearings’ nearly century-old history.

Wisconsin’s conservation hearings began in the 1930s, and let citizens tell policy-makers what they think of proposed laws and rules for hunting, fishing, trapping and environmental programs. The hearings are a joint effort by the DNR and the 360-member Wisconsin Conservation Congress, which is legislatively sanctioned to advise the NRB on DNR policies. The WCC consists of five elected delegates from each county.

This year’s participants also combined to review at least 556 “floor resolutions” from voters in all 72 counties. The record number of county resolutions included 42 questions from Dane, 29 from Milwaukee, 24 from Bayfield and 22 from Waukesha.

WCC Chair Tony Blattler of Phillips said the WCC typically processed 200 to 225 floor resolutions statewide during in-person hearings. Online hearings make it easier for groups and individuals to write and share their questions with other counties. The WCC gathered at least 312 floor resolutions at the April 2021 hearings, 44% fewer than this year.

Roughly 356 (64%) of this year’s floor questions were “shotgun resolutions,” meaning supporters around the state submitted identical or nearly identical questions for ballots in their home counties. If at least one county supports the resolution, a WCC committee must consider it as an advisory question for voters next year.

Blattler said email and social media make it easier for groups to persuade friends and colleagues to submit and support floor resolutions, but he doesn’t consider those efforts harmful.

“Shotgun resolutions aren’t new, but they’re creating more work than ever,” Blattler said. “Some groups have gotten really good at coordinating their efforts and rallying their supporters around the state.”

Among this year’s floor resolutions, 49 counties voted on a plan to “remove politics from conservation” issues; 47 counties considered making the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program permanent; 24 counties considered making the DNR support clean water; 24 counties considered funding no-kill predator prevention efforts on farms; and 22 counties considered a resolution that opposes sandhill crane hunting.

Meanwhile, participants overwhelmingly favored (18,317-1,225, or 94%) stricter protections and cleanup requirements on PFAS chemicals to ensure clean water and safe fish consumption. Of the 19,282 voting on the question, 92% wanted more PFAS testing statewide. Those votes contrast with NRB decisions in February that rejected DNR recommendations for limiting PFAS in private wells and public drinking water.

“PFAS have been in the news, and you can’t mess with people’s drinking water,” Blattler said. “I really think the Board underestimated how big of an issue this is with people across Wisconsin.”

Blattler wasn’t surprised that the hearings’ top vote-generating question asked if hunter-education programs must require hands-on training for those 18 and younger. That question had 20,319 responses, with 93.5% voting for hands-on training. A similar question asked if hands-on training should be required for all hunter-education participants, no matter their age. That drew 19,951 responses, or third most, with 82% favoring the idea.

“When (state) senators tried changing the hunter-education requirement to an online/mentored option in their (Sporting Freedom) package last fall, they rallied opposition from a lot of people,” Blattler said. “Last week’s votes showed the hunter education people are still motivated.”

Fitchburg’s Tom Thoresen, a retired deputy chief conservation warden with the DNR, said this year’s votes differed little from a year ago when the hunter-education questions were floor resolutions in 30 counties.

“These votes underscore the importance of good hunter-safety training,” Thoresen said. “Wisconsin’s hunter-education program has a proven safety record. Hunting enjoys support from most nonhunters in Wisconsin. Safe hunting is a key part of our state’s conservation heritage.”

The question to set a statewide population goal of 350 wolves drew 19,769 votes, the survey’s fifth highest total. Of those voting, 66% favored the goal. A question asking if the state should ban the use of dogs (hounds) for hunting wolves drew 19,080 responses, of which 50.7% rejected the idea. Resident voters also narrowly rejected a proposal to ban all “killing contests.” That question drew 18,877 votes, with 50.3% of all voters approving. However, residents narrowly defeated the question with 50.15% of the vote.

Surprisingly, deer hunting questions generated less attention. The top vote-getter from the deer woods asked if Wisconsin should again mandate back tags. The question generated 18,943 votes, or 12th on the list, with 59% saying “yes.”

In other deer-related questions, 73% of 18,908 votes supported making youth antlerless tags valid on public and private lands; 69% of 18,824 votes supported in-person deer registration; and 67% of 18,120 votes supported carcass tags for deer, turkeys and bears.

The next step in advancing proposals OK’d at the hearings will occur during the WCC’s annual convention May 13-14 at the Chula Vista Resort in Wisconsin Dells. Convention delegates will also choose a new WCC chairman because Blattler won’t seek re-election as chair.

“I’ll still be a Price County delegate to the Congress, but I won’t be part of the leadership team,” Blattler said. “My wife and I have retired, but being the Congress’ chair is like taking on a whole new career.”

Top 25 Spring Hearings Questions 2022 (Based on Total Yes/No Answers)

Question Total Votes Yes No

1) Q48 20,319 19,000 (93.5%) 1,319 (6.5%) — Mandate hands-on hunter education for those under age 18.

2) Q55 20,232 5,219 (26%) 15,013 (74%) — Mandate registration and fees for canoes, kayaks.

3) Q49 19,951 16,290 (82%) 3,661 (18%) — Mandate hands-on hunter education training for all ages.

4) Q51 19,946 17,023 (85%) 2,923 (15%) — No license required for those assisting disabled anglers.

5) Q47 19,769 13,136 (66%) 6,633 (34%) —Set statewide population goal of 350 for wolves.

6) Q56 19,737 9,737 (49.3%) 10,000 (50.7%) — No fee, but contact info required on canoes, kayaks.

7) Q30 19,542 18,317 (94%) 1,225 (6%) — Strong PFAS protection/cleanup for water, safe fish eating.

8) Q13 19,284 9,990 (51.8%) 9,294 (48.2%) — Let turkey hunters buy more than 1 tag daily in season.

9) Q29 19,282 17,677 (92%) 1,605 (8%) — More water testing for PFAS across Wisconsin.

10) Q42 19,205 14,074 (73%) 5,131 (27%) Allow hunters on ATVs not built for passengers.

11) Q62 19,080 9,400 (49.3%) 9,680 (50.7%) — Ban dogs for hunting wolves when the wolf is delisted.

12) Q21 18,943 11,191 (59%) 7,752 (41%) — Require backtags for deer hunting.

13) Q25 18,908 13,793 (73%) 5,115 (27%) — Youth antlerless tags valid on public or private lands.

14) Q63 18,877 9,501 (50.3%) 9,376 (49.7%) — Ban wildlife killing contests. (Rejected 50.15 by residents)

15) Q20 18,824 12,906 (69%) 5,918 (31%) — Re-establish in-person deer registration.

16) Q24 18,724 14,093 (75%) 4,631 (25%) Extend deer registration to 5 pm day after season closes.

17) Q12 18,588 11,269 (61%) 7,319 (39%) — No Canada goose permit during youth-only waterfowl hunt.

18) Q14 18,296 12,615 (70%) 5,681 (30%) — Applicants keep bonus points if they fail to apply for 3 years.

19) Q16 18,141 11,571 (64%) 6,570 (36%) — Let landowners hunt/trap 24 hours before gun deer season.

20) Q22 18,120 12,074 (67%) 6,046 (63%) — Require carcass tags for deer, turkeys, bears.

21) Q17 17,994 9,702 (54%) 8,292 (46%) — Make DNR review impacts of crossbow hunt on gun season.

22) Q60 17,986 14,702 (82%) 3,284 (18%) — Allow boat fees be used for access, invasive species work.

23) Q53 17,926 11,557 (64%) 6,369 (36%) — Regulate hunting contests much like fishing contests.

24) Q52 17,801 14,898 (84%) 2,903 (16%) — Create a wanton waste law to prohibit waste of animals.

25) Q18 17,543 11,038 (63%) 6,505 (37%) — Pilot study to test financial incentives to boost CWD testing.

Wolf populations, clean-water regulations, canoe and kayak registration, and hands-on hunter-education training replaced deer hunting as the top issues during Wisconsin’s annual spring hearings, which were held April 11-14. — Patrick Durkin photo

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