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  • Writer's picturePatrick Durkin

Wisconsin Spring Hearings to Address 49 Conservation Proposals

Updated: Apr 1

   Hunters, anglers and other outdoor recreationists who attend Wisconsin’s spring conservation hearings April 8 can vote in person for the first time since the 2019 statewide meetings.


   These annual hearings are held jointly by the Department of Natural Resources and Wisconsin Conservation Congress. The WCC is a 360-person citizens group that’s legislatively sanctioned to advise Wisconsin’s seven-citizen Natural Resources Board, which sets DNR policy. This year marks the WCC’s 90th anniversary.


   Until expanding the hearings to offer online voting in 2019, the DNR and WCC required in-person attendance to vote on proposed changes to the state’s hunting, fishing, trapping and environmental rules. Covid-19 shut down in-person voting in April 2020, forcing the DNR to offer only online voting through 2023. Participants this year can vote in person by paper ballot April 8, or wait until noon April 10 to vote online. Online voting ends noon April 13.


   The meetings are held in each county seat. Hit this link to find your county’s meeting site: https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/sites/default/files/topic/About/WCC/2024/SpringHearing/2024_SH_Locations_3.28.2024.pdf.


   The 49 DNR and WCC proposals on this year’s questionnaire are for advice only, meaning none are binding and none can take effect this year. Hit this link for the full questionnaire: https://widnr.widen.net/s/xkhjbdjcvn/2024-_spring_hearing_questionnaire


   Questions winning approval could advance to the 2025 spring hearings as official rule proposals for NRB action.


   All questions deal strictly with Wisconsin. “Every year we have people wanting the Congress or DNR to address a national issue of some sort,” said Rob Bohmann, the WCC’s longtime chairman. “I have to remind them that the Congress advises the Natural Resources Board, not the Wisconsin Legislature. The NRB doesn’t make national policy, so we have to stick to Wisconsin-based issues.”


   Bohmann said the WCC pushed the DNR to offer on-site voting this year, saying some people have little or no online access. He also said some people much prefer hearing fellow citizens discuss a proposal’s pros and cons. “I think no input should be left behind,” Bohmann said.


   None of this year’s 49 questions seem especially controversial, and several merely tweak proposals asked in previous years. Still, most are new proposals and worth public discussion, Bohmann said. For instance, the WCC wants to know if Wisconsin should reopen commercial fishing for lake trout on state waters of Lake Michigan. The Lake Michigan Commercial Fishing Board asked the DNR in 2022 to start the rule-making process to re-establish this commercial fishery, and the WCC wants to hear sport anglers’ views.  


   The WCC is also asking whether energy companies should stop mowing their powerline right-of-ways during summer when low-growing vegetation provides habitat for monarch butterflies and other insects, as well as ground-nesting birds and young wildlife. Large modern mowers and brush cutters often reduce vegetation to mulch, destroying hazel brush, milkweed, dogwood and native prairie plants, as well as everything nesting within.


   Another question asks whether the DNR and WCC should work with legislators to reduce the price of resident patron licenses for senior citizens from $165 to $130. The reasoning? Because Wisconsinites 65 and older can buy fishing licenses for $13 less than the regular fee, a small-game license for $9 less, and a state park sticker for $15 less, totaling $37.


   Opponents argue the patron license is convenient and already includes discounts by covering all hunting, fishing and trapping privileges, as well as applications for special tags and access to state parks. Dropping its price by $35 would cost the DNR budget an estimated $441,200, because roughly 12,600 seniors currently buy a patron license, nearly 20% of the 64,801 sold in 2023. The DNR also sold 63,757 patron licenses in 2022 and 62,307 in 2021.


   Further, there’s no evidence the $165 fee is cost-prohibitive, given that patron license sales have risen steadily since bottoming out at 44,049 in 2012. Seniors also don’t get discounts on deer, turkey or trapping licenses or special stamps. In addition, as with all other DNR fees and licenses, the price for a patron’s license hasn’t increased since 2005. When adjusted for inflation, $165 in 2005 equals $266 today.


   A DNR proposal, meanwhile, asks whether to open the state’s general trout and salmon fishing season on inland streams, springs, and spring ponds a month earlier; starting on the first Saturday in April and continuing through Oc. 15. This season has long opened on the first Saturday in May.


   Speaking of trout, the DNR also asks whether to simplify the base statewide regulation by making it five trout in total with no minimum size limit. Wisconsin now has two base trout regulations for its 72 counties. Unless a stream is covered by specific rules in state trout regulations, the county’s base trout rule applies. The DNR is proposing to drop the rule for a bag limit of three trout with an 8-inch minimum size limit. Citing creel survey data, the DNR says anglers today usually release trout less than 8 inches long, and agency biologists doubt the change will hurt trout populations.


   The DNR is also trying once again to allow motor-trolling with three lines statewide. Motor trolling wasn’t allowed for decades in some counties, but in 2018 the DNR relaxed that rule to allow one line per angler and up to a maximum of three lines per boat for motor-trolling in Iron, Vilas, Lincoln, Oneida, Florence, Waupaca and Sheboygan counties, and select waters of Sawyer County.


   Data from DNR creel surveys from 2014 to 2022 on 106 walleye and 71 muskie lakes compared casting and trolling in lakes where one or three lines were allowed per angler. The surveys found motor-trolling had no harmful impacts on fishing pressure, fish caught per hour, fish kept per hour, or the average length of fish kept.


   Still other questions ask whether Wisconsin should …


   -- ban so-called “live scopes” and similar 360-degree imaging electronics,

   -- allow deer hunters to bone out deer and leave inedible parts in the woods,

   -- enact tighter restrictions on wake boats,

   -- impose a 25-fish bag limit on white bass in the Winnebago chain of lakes,

   -- allow people to cross railroad tracks without fear of being charged with trespassing,

   -- ban all wildlife shining from Sept. 15 through Dec. 31.


   Bohmann doesn’t expect a surge in attendance for April’s hearings, noting that online voting in 2023 fell to 11,556 participants statewide, only three years after attracting a record 64,943 voters. Since online voting began in 2019, annual participation has averaged 25,606, with a low of 10,712.


   In contrast, in-person voting exceeded 10,000 only four times from 1970 through 2018, with a high of 30,685 in 2000 when the DNR asked whether it should offer a mourning dove season.


   Doors will open at 6 p.m. for the April 8 in-person hearings, with presentations by local DNR biologists and conservation wardens starting at 6:30 p.m. Elections for county WCC representatives begin at 7 p.m. Attendees will then discuss and vote on the 49 advisory questions.


Participants in Wisconsin’s statewide spring conservation hearings will be asked 49 questions, including whether to reopen commercial fishing for lake trout on Lake Michigan. — Patrick Durkin photo



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