State bucks trend, sticks with backtags

Stevens Point, Wis. — Michigan does not require deer hunters to wear a backtag.

Neither does Minnesota.

Illinois? Nope.

But in Wisconsin, every deer and bear hunter must have a backtag affixed to his or her outer garment while hunting. Some Wisconsin sportsmen believe it’s time to join the rest of the Midwest and do away with the requirement.

The requirement for using backtags was established in the early 1940s by the Wisconsin Legislature, according to Randy Stark, DNR chief conservation warden.

He defends the current law.

“The main purpose of the backtag was, and continues to be, necessary for both law enforcement officials and landowners to identify trespassers and other lawbreakers,” he said.

Seven counties passed local backtag-related resolutions this past spring during the April Wisconsin Conservation Congress and DNR fish and game hearings. Those resolutions, if supported as written, would abolish the requirement for the use of backtags by deer and bear hunters. The combined vote totals were 335 in favor and 210 against, within the seven counties (Fond du Lac, Portage, Sauk, Washburn, Washington, Waukesha, and Winnebago). In some counties, however, the resolution addressed deer hunting only, while others included bear hunting as part of the proposal.

The recommendations were assigned to the WCC Endangered Resource and Law Enforcement Study Committee for consideration at its Sept. 22 meeting in Stevens Point. The committee voted to forward the matter to the WCC Executive Council for possible inclusion on the 2013 spring hearing questionnaire.

Jeff Kenkel, of West Bend, was one of those who submitted the resolution at the spring hearings. An avid bowhunter, he finds the backtag noisy and resents having to punch holes in expensive clothing.

He also mentions the often troublesome need to keep rotating the tag from one piece of clothing to another as weather conditions change throughout the day.

“A heavy outer garment can get too hot,” he said.

Noise is probably the worst nuisance, according to Kenkel.

“They brush up against the back of the tree,” said Kenkel, who says he spends a lot of time in treestands. Wind conditions can also cause a backtag to “flap” in the breeze, he adds.

Some WCC committee members expressed concerns about the possible change. Jim Heffner is retired now, but spent 25 years as a sheriff’s deputy in Green County and believes the backtag is important for law enforcement.

“It’s one of the best ways to identify who might be trespassing or committing some other violations,” Heffner said.

He points out that it’s usually county law enforcement officers who are called if someone is trespassing.

“The DNR doesn’t have jurisdiction over trespassing,” he said. “They would refer it back to the sheriff’s department. You can trace the number back to the DNR even if you don’t know who the person is.”

Despite his reservations about the measure, Heffner voted to send the issue forward.

“I felt the public should have an opportunity to weigh in,” he said.

Kenkel believes there might be landowners who likely will attend the spring hearings because of the proposal.

“I’m anticipating that a lot of property owners are going to vote against it,” he said. “That’s giving them the tool to protect their property.”

Stark points to the 2004 incident in Sawyer County that resulted in the deaths of six hunters as a reason to keep the requirement.

“The recorded backtag number enabled investigators to quickly determine who the suspect was and even locate that person while still in the field,” he said. “We believe the display of a backtag also aids in license compliance by reducing the incidents of individuals hunting without a valid license.”

Kenkel said he understands law enforcement concerns.

“I acknowledge it helps with trespassing issues,” he said. “I know they think it’s important for law enforcement.”

He questions, however, why backtags are necessary in Wisconsin when only a few other states require them.

“All these other states do OK without them,” Kenkel said.

Officials from Minnesota and Michigan report that backtags have not been required in their states for several decades. Ruth Siemert, of the Illinois DNR, said her state eliminated the requirement more recently – “maybe eight or 10 years ago.”

Kenkel said the backtag matter had been addressed several years ago, and he thought at that time the issue had been settled. “I thought it was going to be changed. I remember thinking, great!”

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