WI: Duck hunters offered three zones
Madison- Should Wisconsin have three duck-hunting zones?
That's a question the DNR will ask hunters at the annual spring fish and wildlife hearings on Monday, April 11.
To many duck hunters, it won't make any difference. They hunt in the majority of the state where even with three zones, their hunting season would be unchanged.
But to those hunters who hunt the "big water," such as the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, and the very southern counties in Wisconsin, a third zone could add additional hunting days during the late season. This is when mallards may still be feeding in cornfields or when migratory flocks are using open water in the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.
Sportsmen will be able to vote on three questions:
1. No change in the current two zones (north and south), with the dividing line being Hwys. 10 and 41.
2. Three zones with the current mid-state dividing line. The third zone is "U-shaped" and includes the Mississippi River, Lake Michigan, and areas south of Hwy. 11 that connect the two big pieces of water.
3. Three zones (including the U-shaped far south zone) with Hwy. 64 as the mid-state dividing line.
No matter how many zones or where the boundaries are set, the season framework will be established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and then specifics set by the DNR and Natural Resources Board.
In a season like recent years, the North Zone normally is run continuously, without a split, and the south typically has a five-day split. With a third zone, the "big water zone" could have a slightly longer seven- to 12-day split. This way the big water zone would extend into mid-December.
"The information we've had the last few years tells us that 60 to 70 percent of the duck hunters are basically content with the season configuration that we have had," said Kent Van Horn, DNR migratory bird ecologist.
So why mess with a good thing? Van Horn said those who hunt the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan have wanted their own zone so they can hunt later into the year.
The DNR has petitioned the USFWS to consider a third zone, and this is the year that a change could be made.
"The question then is, can we do something with a third zone that would not change things for the two-thirds who like it as it is, but add something for those 20 percent who want a change?" Van Horn said.
"What we are looking for is just a small shift, not a wholesale shift, because the majority likes it the way it is."
Even though some hunters want to hunt later, Van Horn notes that in recent years the whole state froze up about the end of the duck season.
The opportunities to have later hunting where there still could be open water are the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan, but the USFWS requires that any zone must be connected.
"The new zone will separate out the part of the state with the latest hunting opportunities," Van Horn said. "When we talk about season dates we could give that U-shaped zone a later split, but it's still only a few days difference."
Van Horn said if this proceeds and it's tried for a couple years and doesn't work, the DNR can return to what existed by giving the third zone the same season dates as the southern zone.
This provides an incentive to try the new proposal, since it can easily be reversed if people don't like the results.
Van Horn sent out a random survey to 1,000 duck hunters and 700 were returned. The surveys indicated that about 55 percent wanted the season to be kept the way it is, and 45 percent wanted the change.
Van Horn believes the random survey of waterfowlers offers the most accurate indication of what duck hunters want.
The option of where the dividing line should be in the state could cause the most controversy.
Using the current line of Hwy. 10 has worked fairly well, though some people are concerned about crowding just north of the line.
Van Horn analyzed the harvest data for the counties that are between Hwys. 10 and 64. He found that hunters shoot ducks early, and every week afterward the harvest goes down.
"So, if we do anything other than keep those counties in the northern zone and open them early, hunters north of Hwy. 10 will lose hunting opportunities," Van Horn said. "By the first week in November, 87 percent of the duck harvest is over in those counties."
Van Horn believes hunters would benefit by the dividing line being kept at Hwy. 10, but the spring hearing questions give hunters the option of moving the dividing line north.
Originally, the state was supposed to give the USFWS an answer by April, but there have been delays, and the USFWS has to publish a rule in the Federal Register and have an environmental assessment of the change.
The DNR will use the results and then make a decision and recommend it to the Natural Resources Board.
Dick Koerner, chair of the Conservation Congress Migratory Committee and a waterfowler, said he would like to see the third zone added but does not have a strong preference for where the line is drawn in the middle of the state.
Peter Peshek, a Sturgeon Bay-area waterfowler, said he was disappointed the DNR would not allow four zones, which he said the USFWS would have allowed, with Lake Michigan a separate zone.
"The failure to give big-water hunters of Lake Michigan a separate zone is a mistake," Peshek said. "There is not enough similarity of interests to warrant the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan in the same zone."
Waterfowlers will be able to have their say on April 11.