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  • Patrick Durkin

Wisconsin Lawmakers: End the Frolic with ‘Hunter Nation’

Updated: Jan 21

Wisconsin this month fortified its standing as the capital of the world for chronic wasting disease by verifying the plague in wild deer in 38 of the state’s 72 counties.


Yep, Wisconsin now has more counties with CWD in free-ranging deer than it does counties without. We passed the halfway mark Jan. 11 when the Department of Natural Resources reported two adult bucks in Monroe County and one yearling buck (18 months old) in Oconto County tested positive for the always-fatal disease.


We started the 2021 hunting seasons with CWD in 34 counties but made it 35 when the DNR confirmed a sick adult doe Oct. 29 in Fond du Lac County. We then reached the halfway point Dec. 12 when the DNR confirmed a sick yearling buck in Vilas County.


And just think what we’d find if we searched aggressively for CWD. All four newly christened CWD counties found their first cases despite modest sampling efforts. Hunters in Monroe County have provided a respectable 373 samples during the current testing year, but hunters in Oconto provided only 162; Vilas, 161; and Fond du Lac, 105.


The 2021 sampling year ends March 31, but it’s safe to report that 25 Wisconsin counties will end the year with less than 100 samples tested, given the hunt is largely over.


As of Jan.15, Wisconsin has confirmed 9,450 CWD cases since discovering the disease in three deer shot west of Madison in November 2001. The DNR has documented 1,283 cases statewide so far this year after testing 16,165 samples. That’s 8% of all tests, which is similar to 2020’s rate.


CWD sampling declined this past fall, with 2,749 fewer samples (-14.5%) statewide than in 2020 (18,914). Most samples come from the DNR’s southern farmland zone, where sampling fell 22% from 9,382 a year ago to 7,277.


Despite the decline, 1,234 deer (17%) have tested positive so far in that zone, which is 4 percentage points lower than the 2020 total. For perspective, when the DNR tested similar numbers (7,097 deer) in the Southern farmlands in 2010, it found 219 (3%) CWD cases, or 5.6 times fewer doomed deer.


Elsewhere, CWD cases more than doubled from 19 to 39 in central Wisconsin’s farmlands this year, accounting for 40% of the zone’s historical total of 98 cases. In addition, deer baiting is now banned in 58 Wisconsin counties. The 14 counties where the controversial practice remains are Douglas, Bayfield, Ashland, Iron, Sawyer, Rusk, Price, St. Croix, Pierce, Lincoln, Brown, Manitowoc, Kewaunee and Door.


Iowa County again leads the state with 315 cases this year, or 31% of the 1,026 samples provided. Next was Richland, 270 cases (21% positive); Sauk, 222 (25%); Dane, 151 (17%); Grant, 80 (14%); and Columbia, 72 (15%).


Cooperation from hunters remains poor as indifference reigns. In Sauk County, hunters tested only 15% of the 6,002 deer they registered during the 2021 gun, crossbow and archery seasons. Further, Dane County hunters tested 23.5% of 3,833 registered deer; Richland County, 24% of 5,228; Iowa County, 28% of 3,607; Grant County, 0.09% of 6,176; and Columbia County, 0.08% of 6,007.


A soon-to-be released DNR survey from 2019 also found that 70% of Wisconsin hunters have never submitted a deer for CWD testing. The survey also found that 33% of hunters who get their deer tested don’t wait for results before eating it.


Despite such dismal numbers, GOP lawmakers are ignoring the mess by distracting everyone with the Wisconsin Sporting Freedom Act. This bag of stale air from the Kansas-based group Hunter Nation doesn’t even mention CWD.


We pause here to ask, “Sporting Freedom Act”? What is that? Do politicians think they can just insert “freedom” in a bill’s title, and we’ll snap to attention and salute? As silly as “freedom fries” sounded in February 2003, at least the word choice made sense. You’ll recall folks were mad at France for not supporting the war in Iraq, and urged restaurants to purge “French” from their menus.


Again I ask: Sporting Freedom Act? Freedom from what? Science? Biology? A future for deer hunting in Wisconsin?


If you think that’s harsh, explain how mandating the annual raising and releasing of 200,000 pheasants and 100,000 brook trout is relevant to liberty and freedom, or wise fish and wildlife management?


And how about the act’s “turkey hunting simplification” bill? Luke Hilgemann, CEO/president of Hunter Nation, recently wrote that our current spring turkey season confuses Wisconsin hunters. Really? Name someone who’s puzzled. True, our current season of six weeklong hunting periods might baffle your average lobbyist, state senator, assembly-creature, and Gov. Scott Walker’s four appointees to the Natural Resources Board. But Wisconsin’s spring season wins praise from 70% to 80% of turkey hunters surveyed annually.


Another bill in the “Freedom Act” infuriates many retired conservation wardens and the Wisconsin Hunter Education Instructor Association. The Mentored Hunt Bill (SB-611 and AB-670) would allow beginning hunters to earn their hunter-education certificate by simply taking an online course and then going afield with a licensed adult hunter, not a certified instructor.


Yes, that shortcut was allowed the past year because of COVID-19, and it sounded OK the first time I read it, but I was wrong. It doesn’t deserve our Legislature’s permanent blessing.


Hilgemann also recently wrote: “Hunting … in Wisconsin is a sacred tradition (and the Freedom Act sends) a strong message about our heritage and way of life. Not only does the Wisconsin Sporting Freedom Act reform rules for hunters and anglers, it helps ensure that future generations still have access to the resources that help these sacred traditions thrive through proactive resource management.”


Huh? You’ll find more substance in a bag of cheetos. Hunter Nation and its GOP backers insult Wisconsin’s hunting heritage by ignoring all the work of recent decades that made hunting so safe.


The WHEIA notes that conservation wardens annually investigated 174 hunting accidents, including 17 deaths, from 1956 to 1966 in Wisconsin. The state’s hunter education program began in 1967. Since then, over 17,000 volunteer instructors helped reduce those numbers to an annual average of 21 accidents and 1.8 deaths.


Y’know, we don’t need Hunter Nation messing with our programs. It’s time GOP lawmakers stop frolicking with these amateurs and get serious about addressing CWD and other obvious challenges to our natural resources.


That won’t happen, however, if hunters, anglers and trappers don’t hold lawmakers accountable with emails, letters, phone calls and votes.


Hunter Nation exposed this Legislature’s scarcity of thinkers and leaders. They must be told what to do.

It’s time for Wisconsin lawmakers to work with hunters, anglers and trappers to address chronic wasting disease and other challenges to the state’s natural resources. — Patrick Durkin photo

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