Upon his election, Gov. Scott Walker declared “Wisconsin is open for business.”
A bill set for a public hearing Wednesday morning would add a variation, “Wisconsin is open for hunting.”
An amendment to the “Sportsman Heritage Bill” headed to the Senate early next year would open all 48 state parks to hunting and trapping, unless the Department of Natural Resources Board voted to close a park or portions of it. It reverses the current management practice: state parks are closed to hunting unless the DNR board acts to open them for such activities.
Close to Milwaukee, the Lapham Peak recreation area, part of the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, would stay closed to hunting due to deed restrictions on roughly 400 acres of land within the DNR property.
Other land in the Kettle Moraine State Forest has been and would remain open to hunting.
Given that the DNR currently allows hunting in all but nine state parks, the legislation imposes a subtle shift, but one that has drawn opposition from recreational users – namely hikers, bikers and skiers.
(The nine state parks now closed to hunting are Amnicon Falls, Aztalan, Big Foot Beach, Governor Nelson, Lake Kegonsa, Lakeshore, Merrick, Pattison and Roche-A-Cri and several of those are opened to the sport during the gun deer season.)
Michael McFadzen, a silent sports enthusiast and member of the Governor’s Wisconsin Trails Council, wrote that the shift would drive people away from their non-lethal pursuits on the trails across the state.
“I am unequivocally opposed to this law as it will displace traditional park and trail users,” McFadzen wrote to DNR officials.
“There are approximately five million acres in Wisconsin that are open to hunting,” he said. “It doesn't make sense to open more lands in the face of decreasing hunter numbers. State Park and Trails are used by a majority of Wisconsin residents as a way getting into nature. Many families will avoid this healthy recreation during prime autumn park/trail usage when hunters are on these properties.”
The biggest conflicts would occur in the fall, from the time small-game hunting opens in September through November and December and the popular and profitable deer hunting season. While park use declines during those months, it remains significant, with upwards of 744,000 visits in November and December, based on DNR figures.
The shift in the regulation of hunting in state parks is one element of Assembly Bill 311, created to reverse the downward trend of hunting licenses sold and hunters in the state. The number of licensed deer hunters dropped from 935,000 to 800,372 from 2005 to 2009, according to DNR figures cited by the Wausau Daily Herald.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison study released in February and quoted by the Daily Herald showed that the number of hunters in Wisconsin could drop 27% from 2009 to 2030.
State Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna), one of the bill’s sponsors, said the intent was to provide more opportunities for use of the state-owed lands.
“The idea here I that if it’s taxpayer-owned land, the presumption should be they are open, unless there is a good reason for them to be closed,” he said. “I’m of the mind that if there’s a good reason it’s closed off now, it should remain so.
“First and foremost, public safety has to be addressed.”
The public hearing on the bill (Senate Bill 226) is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. The Assembly approved its version of the bill in October, on an 84-12 vote.
It also has been approved by the Joint Finance Committee and would be taken up by the full senate when it returns to session in January.
For more details and reporting on the bill, click here for a piece written by Patrick Durkin, in the December issue of Silent Sports Magazine.
Durkin makes the point that reducing the deer herd in state parks serves an important role in protecting native vegetation: “Recent research by University of Wisconsin botanists documented that state parks without deer hunting typically suffered some of the area's worst growth and regeneration of native vegetation.
“Further, when parks aren't open to deer hunting, they become de facto refuges, allowing deer herds to overpopulate and inflict extensive damage to nearby private crops, trees, shrubbery and other property. And in areas with chronic wasting disease, the DNR promotes hunting in state parks to prevent them from becoming CWD repositories. “