Could hunters & nonhunters cross paths?
Bill would open Wisconsin state parks to hunting throughout fall
The "Sportsman Heritage Bill" (AB 311) passed by the Wisconsin Assembly on November 1 would open all 48 state parks to public hunting unless closed by specific rulings approved by the seven-member Natural Resources Board.
The bill now goes to the Senate, which was expected to hold a public hearing on SB 226 sometime in November after this issue went to press. The earliest the Senate could vote on the Sportsman Heritage Bill and send it to Gov. Scott Walker for his signature would be January 2012 when the Senate reconvenes for its next floor session.
The Sportsman Heritage Bill was originally written in hopes of boosting hunting, fishing and trapping participation by giving lapsed and first-time hunters, anglers and trappers discounts on their licenses. It would also create adult-only hunter education classes, and give high school students credit for completing a certified hunter education course.
However, an amendment by Rep. Terry Mursau, a Republican from Crivitz, and approved when the bill passed by the Assembly on a 84-12 vote, would open state parks to all forms of hunting, fishing and trapping except in "designated-use" areas such as beaches, campsites, picnic areas, boat landings and hiking trails. Although hunting wouldn't be allowed on park trails, hunters could carry uncased bows or guns when following trails to and from a hunting area.
Under current law, trapping isn't allowed in state parks, and hunting is presumed illegal unless specifically approved by the NRB. The new law flip-flops those presumptions: All state parks would be open to hunting and trapping unless specifically prohibited by the board.
If the Senate passes the bill next year, the Department of Natural Resources would have until January 2013 to determine how hunting and trapping would be regulated in each of the 48 state parks.
The DNR operates the Wisconsin State Park Service, which oversees more than 100 properties. Besides parks, the Park Service also operates various state trails, recreation areas and the southern state forests. Private nonprofit organizations own four other parks in the system, and don't allow hunting. The proposed law covers only the 48 DNR-operated parks.
Currently, 39 state parks are open to some form of hunting. Within those 39 parks, nearly 80,000 acres are open to hunting and 4,600 are not. For the most part, hunting is restricted to white-tailed deer in the fall, and wild turkeys in April. The whitetail hunts typically include the nine-day November firearms deer season, the month-long December archery deer season, and the 10-day muzzleloading season in early December.
The other nine parks, which are relatively small properties, offer no hunting opportunities: Amnicon Falls, Aztalan, Big Foot Beach, Governor Nelson, Lake Kegonsa, Lakeshore, Merrick, Pattison and Roche-A-Cri.
Current conflicts minimal
Current hunting opportunities in state parks usually don't cause many conflicts with other park users, whose peak visits occur from May through October. For instance, of the 13.78 million visits to state parks during the past fiscal year (July 2010 through June 2011), November-December visits amounted to 5.4 percent of annual attendance.
Most deer hunting starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving and closes in early January. At 346,309 visits (2.5 percent of the total), December 2010 recorded the fiscal year's lowest monthly attendance. Further, most spring turkey hunting ends before May in state parks, with park attendance in April (567,635, 4.1 percent) ranking seventh of the 12 months.
However, as currently written, SB 226 would open all state parks to small-game hunting seasons, which begin in September for squirrels, ruffed grouse, Canada geese, wild turkey, crow, woodcock, mourning dove. Further, cottontail rabbit hunting starts in September in northern Wisconsin.
During the past fiscal year, September was the fourth most popular month for park attendance, with 1.37 million visits. October was the sixth most popular at 1.24 million. Combined, September-October park visits made up 19 percent of annual state-park attendance. Several small-game seasons continue through January, which ranks ninth in park attendance last year with 403,366 visits, or 3 percent of the annual total.
This wouldn't be the first time small game would be hunted in state parks. The DNR conducted pilot studies of small-game hunting at six state parks from 2003 through 2005. These hunts began after November 1, and the DNR found that conflicts varied between the parks. In some cases, hikers and horseback riders left the park after learning hunters were present, but in other cases no conflicts were documented.
September-October conflicts likely
Opening state parks to small-game hunting in September and October concerns people like Michael McFadzen of Plymouth, former chairman and longtime member of the Wisconsin Governor's State Trail Council.
"The original intent of Senate Bill 226 to encourage more hunting, fishing and trapping was reasonable and I support it," McFadzen said. "But it's ludicrous to allow hunting in state parks during early fall when so many other people are already using the parks for other recreation, whether it's hiking, bicycling, trail running, bird watching, horseback riding or just enjoying the fall colors."
McFadzen said most people realize nonhunting recreationists face little risk of being shot by hunters. He said, however, that they prefer quiet and solitude, and worry about their families' safety despite hunting's impressive safety record.
"There's no denying safety perceptions exists," McFadzen said. "Parents would just as soon not have to worry about their kids' safety while walking park trails. Typically, when they encounter a hunter, they'll cut short their hike and not return. Many people who traditionally use the parks in autumn would be displaced, and for what? State parks represent about one-half of 1 percent of our public lands, so it's not as if hunters have no other place to go."
Deer hunting necessary
The DNR regularly pushes deer hunting in state parks to reduce browse damage to native plants. 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.
By evaluating each park's suitability for hunting over the past 10 to 15 years in public forums like the Wisconsin Conservation Congress's annual spring hearings, the DNR quietly expanded hunting opportunities in state parks with little controversy.
Likewise, parks operated by cities, counties and universities around the state have set up bowhunting programs that run throughout autumn with little or no conflict with other recreationists. Dane County, for example, allows bowhunting in its park system through an application and permit system. Participating bowhunters often encounter hikers, horseback riders and cross-country skiers when walking to and from their hunting sites. However, they must keep their bows cased until reaching their chosen site.
As is standard DNR practice since Gov. Walker appointed Cathy Stepp its secretary, the agency took no position on the bill. Parks Director Dan Schuller said the DNR strives to make the parks accessible to as many user groups as possible, and foresees a "public conversation" to keep conflicts to a minimum if the bill becomes law.
Patrick Durkin of Waupaca, Wisconsin, is a freelance outdoor writer and active hunter, angler, runner, rower and marathoner. Write to him at 721 Wesley St., Waupaca, WI 54981 or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.