No ‘let-off’ in sight on crossbow issue

Madison — Much of the debate in the upcoming legislative session will focus on such topics such as job creation, education, and funding for new highway construction, but if the spirited discussion at DNR headquarters on Jan. 3 is any indication, Wisconsin’s sportsmen and women would do well to keep checking the radar for new legislation that might change the face of the archery deer season.

Rumors of new attempts to install a “full-inclusion” crossbow season have been circulating for months, but speculation about a bill popping up in the Legislature during the new session appears to be escalating. Why else would two legislators, a Natural Resources Board member, the National Rifle Association, and representatives from a dozen or so sportsmen’s groups show up for a meeting on the subject?

Why the NRA? State lobbyist Brent Gardner says his organization has a policy that fosters access and opportunity.

“The big issue is we’re seeing a decline in new hunters across the board nationwide,” he said. “In our research, one of the largest areas of potential growth in hunting is with women. There is also great potential among the young,” Gardner added, pointing out that the trend across the country is for greater use of crossbows, a move that encourages more young people and women to become active in hunting and target shooting.

“There are already 22 states using crossbows, and seven more will probably be added this year,” Gardner said.

Buster Bachhuber, of Wausau, serves on both the national and state NRA boards of directors.

“It’s an emotional issue. I see all these wheels on these bows, and I don’t understand the fuss,” Bachhuber said. “I don’t know that they (crossbows) are any more effective than another bow; it’s a very sharp blade on the end of that arrow whether it’s from a crossbow or compound.”

According to John Cumming, president of the Wisconsin Crossbow Federation, the arguments against crossbows haven’t changed, e.g., that it (crossbow) is not a bow, and expanded crossbow use would ruin the archery season.

“We had this debate with the longbow and recurve and whether compounds should be included in the archery season,” Cumming said.

“The archery season was basically morbid before the compound bow evolved,” Cumming said. “Most people would just get frustrated and quit. Now 95 percent (of archers) use compound bows.”

Cumming also asserts that the bar for claiming disability that would allow crossbow use results in a high level of exclusion.

“They’re not trying to include people; they’re trying to keep them out,” he said.

Currently, only those age 65 and over and hunters with medically documented disabilities are allowed to use crossbows in Wisconsin.

The rather tenuous consensus reached on Jan. 3 regarding future options is as follows:

• Crossbows would be allowed concurrent with the archery deer season (currently the third Saturday in September through the first Sunday in January);
• Hunters purchasing an archery license would declare whether they will hunt with crossbow, bow, or both;
• When registering a deer, the hunter would indicate on the registration form whether the kill was with bow or crossbow;
• A “last in, first out” system would make the crossbow season the first casualty if data show that an overharvest has occurred.

Not everyone is excited about the proposal, however. The Wisconsin Bowhunters Association has long asserted that crossbows do not meet the definition of archery equipment, saying that modern crossbows are more powerful and accurate than “lesser” weapons – compound bows, recurves, and longbows.

It appears, however, that the organization might be amenable to change. WBH vice president Greg Prince, of Elkhorn, struck a conciliatory tone at the Jan. 3 meeting while outlining his organization’s position.

“We appreciate being included (in the discussion),” Prince said.

He offered an alternative to full inclusion by suggesting a separate crossbow license and a season that would begin with the opening of the archery season in September and would close in mid-October, or Oct. 15. The idea failed to gain traction at the meeting, however. Prince declined to take an official position, saying that would have to come from the WBH Board of Directors.

After the WBH board discussed the matter at its Jan. 12 meeting in Stevens Point, WBH president Mike Brust expressed concern that the Madison meeting, contrary to the invitation, was heavily stacked in favor of groups representing crossbows. He said WBH attended the meeting with a willingness to compromise to help end the divisiveness that’s harming the hunting community.

“But, there was no compromise,” Brust said.

To clarify any perceived discrepancies created by the exchange of information, Brust reiterated that the organization’s position hasn’t changed.

“We have nothing against crossbows,” he said.

Regarding the length of the season, Brust said that is a decision the public should make.

“As long as it’s a separate season, we don’t have a dog in that fight,” he says. “All we’re saying is we want separation.

“They have to be regulated separate from archery equipment,” Brust said. “The crossbow has been defined in Wisconsin statute as a superior weapon as contained in the ‘lesser weapon’ bill that passed in 2012.

“Modern crossbows have the accuracy potential and kinetic energy to kill a deer at 100 yards,” Brust said. “The technology for crossbows is almost limitless.”

State Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau, took a stab at simplifying the matter at the Jan. 3 meeting.

“Maybe the best way to handle this is to have a firearm and non-firearm season,” Danou said. “Then it wouldn’t need legislation; you could fix things through the administrative rule process.”

“As long as it’s an ethical hunt, does it matter how you release the arrow?” he asked.

Moreover, Danou claims, it is the gun hunt that drives the state’s deer management program.

“I don’t see that it (crossbow use) is going to have a big impact on the overall harvest,” he said.

Regarding the potential for legislation in the current session, Danou stopped short of saying he would introduce a bill.

“I’m always willing to take a look,” he said. “I think it needs to be fixed.”

Despite differences of opinion, a workable compromise appears possible.

“Crossbows have the potential to add new hunting opportunity,” Brust said, “and WBH has always supported non-destructive hunting opportunities.”

Cumming regards the outcome of the meeting as nothing less than “spectacular.”

The meeting was called by Natural Resources Board member Greg Kazmierski, owner of an archery shop in southeastern Wisconsin. Kazmierski asked the Tim Lawhern, DNR Division of Enforcement and Science administrator, to set up the meeting. DNR conservation warden Todd Schaller invited groups that included WBH, Wisconsin Traditional Archers, Quality Deer Management Association, United Foundation for Disabled Archers, the Conservation Congress, United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, Safari Club International, the Hunters Rights Coalition, and the NRA. The Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, was invited, but had no one at the meeting because of a communication mix-up.

Natural Resources Board chairman Dave Clausen said he was not invited to the meeting, and did not know if other NRB members had been invited. 

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