Hunters lambaste DNR in the north

Correspondent

Minocqua, Wis. A panel of state officials gathered for a
hunters’ forum in Minocqua the night of March 14 found a familiar
piece of common ground the undeniable fact that crafting resource
management plans to satisfy all of Wisconsin’s diverse user groups
will be no easy task.

Nearly 200 sportsmen and women filled the bleachers at
Minocqua-Hazelhurst-Lake Tomahawk Elementary School to ask
questions of, and provide input for, a mixed panel of a dozen state
legislators, conservation group officials, and DNR officials.

The forum, sponsored by The Lakeland Times and Wisconsin Outdoor
News, and moderated by Eagle River WRJO news and sports director
Chris Oatman, provided sportsmen an opportunity to discuss the
state’s plans pertaining to overall deer management, the wolf
program, and proposed license fee increases.

The panel consisted of Assembly Speaker John Gard, Assembly
Natural Resources Committee chairman Scott Gunderson, state
representatives Dan Meyer and Don Friske, Conservation Congress
chairman Steve Oestreicher, Northern Wisconsin Beef Producers
Association representative Eric Koens, Wisconsin Wildlife
Federation executive director and former DNR secretary George
Meyer, DNR mammalian ecologist Adrian Wydeven, DNR Northern Region
wildlife biologist Mike Zeckmeister, DNR state deer ecologist Keith
Warnke, DNR budget director Joe Polasek, and DNR Secretary Scott
Hassett.

Stressing that Wisconsin is home to “the most wonderful variety
of fish and game” and boasts “incredible access to public lands,”
Hassett said his role as DNR secretary is to educate the public on
his agency’s evolving resource management policies. That involved
dispelling a couple of myths, he said.

“The license fee package is not there to balance the state
budget. That’s a segregated account that can’t be used to balance
accounts in other agencies. It’s exclusively for fishing, hunting,
habitat, field workers, and law enforcement,” Hassett said, adding
that the fish and wildlife account is the most scrutinized in state
government.

The second “myth” that Hassett addressed centered on the claim
that fish and wildlife monies are being wasted on administrative
costs.

“This is one of very few accounts with statutory limits on
administrative costs, 16 percent, and we have been running at 11
percent. This budget is between 9 and 10 percent administrative
costs. No matter what type of business, you run 10 percent or less
of administrative costs, that’s just phenomenal,” he said.

The DNR is facing a $20 million shortfall in the fish and
wildlife account across the next biennium, Hassett said, with the
proposed license fee increases designated to “fill holes,” not
institute any new programs. Without the added revenue, existing
programs will be downsized or cut, and sportsmen will feel the
resulting impacts.

“My job is to let people know what’s at stake here,” he said,
noting that there hasn’t been an increase in the deer license fee
in nine years.

Without the license fee increases, fish and wildlife stocking
programs will be at risk, and an existing strain on the
conservation warden force, which needs to fill 30 vacancies
already, will be exacerbated, he said. Wisconsin currently has one
of the worst warden-to-sportsmen ratio in the country, he
added.

Gunderson told the assembled crowd he has a “real problem with
what’s going on.” The state’s handling of chronic wasting disease
is cause for concern, he said, pointing out that the CWD herd
reduction zone has crept into portions of Kenosha and Racine
counties.

“If deer become like pests, that’s a problem,” Gunderson said.
“We can’t let that happen because deer are very important to our
state.”

Gunderson also questioned the DNR’s wolf management program.

“We’ve gone the wrong direction when it comes to wolves in this
state. We have to do a better job of counting with wolves, deer,
and bears. We have to get the numbers right. Nobody here but the
DNR believes the numbers for wolves, deer, and bears.”

Telling the crowd that “there is no free lunch,” George Meyer
said sportsmen have to realize that services and programs will be
lost without the proposed license fee increases.

“The money you pay in licenses stays in fish management,
wildlife management, and law enforcement. That’s mandated by the
federal Wildlife Restoration Act. Please do not buy the argument
that the money gets spent on anything but hunting, fishing,
trapping, and anything that supports it,” he said.

In the late 1960s a deer license cost $5, which is the
equivalent of approximately $31 in today’s economy, Meyer said.
Deer licenses would cost $32 under the proposed increase, up from
$20. Meyer acknowledged that could get pricey for a hunting family
with two or three teenagers, so he suggested modifying the current
proposal to establish a youth license fee at the current $20
rate.

Polasek called the license fee increase issue a “zero-sum game,”
balancing the dollars that come in with the dollars that go out. If
dollars don’t come in, cuts have to be made, he said.

A summary of the issues

Following introductions and opening statements from each of the
panel members, the public took its turn. Questions and statements
were taken during 30-minute segments for each forum topic deer
management, the wolf program, and license fee increases.

Scott Benson, of Woodruff, told the panel the deer management
plan “must be favorable to reduce the herd to where it needs to be”
and to find a way to get a favorable population ratio between bucks
and does. There are many hunters who will kill only bucks, he
said.

“Most hunters I know hunt the first four days and then they’re
gone. You need to make it favorable to harvest antlerless deer,” he
said. “Instead of earn-a-buck, go for paying for a buck. If you
want to only shoot a buck, pay for it.”

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