With recent months having brought everything from the state’s first wolf hunt to a noisy debate over trapping and hunting in state parks, non-hunters and animal activists in Wisconsin are arguing that powerful hunting groups are wielding too much influence with the state Legislature and the Department of Natural Resources.
Now, some of those activists are hoping to crash the party of one of state’s most influential pro-hunting groups — the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
Melissa Smith, a Madison resident who has helped lead opposition to wolf hunting in the state, has declared herself a candidate for the Conservation Congress, a popular statewide organization that advises the state Department of Natural Resources on outdoor sporting issues.
Though she said she is not opposed to sustenance hunting, Smith said she is concerned that the voices of non-hunters are not being heard or heeded on issues such as the wolf hunt and the expansion of hunting and trapping in state parks. Both issues are the subject of questions that will be asked at Conservation Congress meetings to be held simultaneously Monday night in every county.
“I’m not an anti-hunter,” Smith said. “But it just seems that a lot of the people involved with the Congress have become so extreme. Wolf hunting with dogs? And hunting and trapping in state parks? That’s why I’m running. I don’t know what else to do.”
Smith plans to run as a delegate at the Dane County meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at Sun Prairie High School.
The Conservation Congress was created by the state Legislature to advise the DNR on hunting, fishing and trapping as well as broader conservation issues. Every spring, the group holds meetings on the same night statewide to elect delegates and to vote on a long list of issues. Anyone can attend and cast votes.
This year, in addition to dozens of questions about obscure changes in fishing and hunting rules, the questionnaire includes queries about whether dogs should be used to hunt wolves, whether hunting and trapping in state parks should be expanded, and whether a number of hunting seasons — such as those for bobcats and coyotes — should be extended.
Rob Bohmann, chairman of the organization, said that because of the prominence of several hunting issues in the past year he expects a number of animals rights activists and their supporters to attend meetings and put candidates up for election, especially in Dane and Milwaukee counties.
Delegates are important because they serve on committees and help shape and present the organization’s agenda.
Smith’s candidacy has caught the interest of some groups, such as the Dane County Humane Society, that have not traditionally been involved with the Conservation Congress proceedings.
Others also say they are concerned about the views of non-hunters getting drowned out by outspoken hunting groups such as the Conservation Congress or the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, which helped push the wolf hunting season through the state Legislature.
Few people have been more vocal — and more of a lightning rod — on the issue than Patricia Randolph, an animal rights activist who became the first staunch hunting opponent to be elected as a Conservation Congress delegate when she won a position in Dane County in 1999. She served through 2001 and her term was marked by controversy, including a dustup in which she was warned by Conservation Congress leaders that she would be censured or removed if she spoke against hunting.
Randolph maintains that few non-hunters know about the Conservation Congress and the power the organization wields on hunting issues with both the DNR and the state Legislature. The problem, she said, is that the views of the organization are representative not of the general public but of hunters, who make up a minority of the population. As a result, Randolph said, hunting — including seasons on everything from wolves to mourning doves and proposed seasons on sandhill cranes and even gulls — seems to be expanding even in the face of what she says is opposition from the general public on issues such as wolf hunting or trapping in parks.
“We are totally disenfranchised,” Randolph said.
Smith said she is emphasizing her opposition to wolf hunting with dogs and the expansion of hunting and trapping in state parks. But she said she also intends to push the congress to take stronger stands on conservation issues such as the protection of wetlands.
“The Conservation Congress has changed over the years,” Smith said. “There are very few questions at the meeting about conservation. It just seems to have evolved over the years to become a hunters’ club.”
Bohmann, however, said that the strong push by the hunting community in recent years to add more seasons and encourage more hunters is necessary because as the number of hunters drops, they lose their power to influence decision-makers.
“If we don’t fight for what we have, we’ll lose it,” Bohmann said. “I think we’re more active now.”
Bill Cosh, a spokesman for the DNR, said the agency does pay close attention to the views of hunters and those who participate in other outdoor sports such as trapping and fishing.
“They are not only part of our culture,” he said, “but they are also methods of responsibly managing our wildlife populations.”
But Cosh also said the DNR promotes many non-hunting activities such as camping, hiking, biking, wildlife observation, and skiing.
Bohmann said he welcomes those with diverse viewpoints to attend the Conservation Congress meetings and to run for the delegate positions. But he said that there has to be a willingness to compromise and he expects everyone on both sides of the issues to respect opposing views.
“Everybody has a right to run for the congress,” Bohmann said. “What they need to understand is it cannot be all one way or another. You have to work together. And let’s be respectful. That’s all I ask for. You don’t have to agree with someone but let’s be respectful.”
Patty Lowry had never been to a meeting of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress before attending the group’s spring hearing last week at Sun Prairie High School. But her interest in the group has grown since she learned it was behind the recently passed state law allowing trapping and expanded hunting in state parks.
“I started hearing that the Conservation Congress had a tremendous amount of power and had a lot of clout with the Department of Natural Resources and the Legislature,” says Lowry, who lives in Madison. The Conservation Congress is an advisory body to the DNR made up of elected delegates from each county.
Lowry was one of the 662 people who packed Sun Prairie’s performing arts center April 8 to elect two Dane County delegates and to vote on numerous matters related to fishing, hunting and conservation. The turnout was higher than average, says Kari Lee-Zimmermann, the staff liaison between the Congress and the DNR, as it was at some of the other meetings held the same night in each of the state’s 72 counties.
Lowry says she and others new to the group turned out because they’re appalled at recent state wildlife management decisions, including those that permit wolf hunting with dogs and hunting and trapping in state parks.
“It’s like waking a sleeping giant,” she says. “A lot of people woke up to this nightmare that they were going to have to wear blaze orange in their state parks. You see it and can’t believe it’s happening.”
This backlash likely cost Matt Rainey his seat on the five-person Dane County delegation, as Melissa Smith beat him out for a two-year term in the first election of the evening. Another incumbent, however, held onto his seat for a three-year term.
In her stump speech, Smith declared that “hunting and trapping in state parks is not a compromise.” She promised to “give the majority in Dane County a voice.”
The DNR board in December scaled back the new state law on hunting and trapping in state parks, allowing these activities roughly two months of the year.
The results of the statewide ballot (PDF) distributed at the spring hearing, however, in which 2,922 people voted in favor of expanded hunting and fishing in state parks and 1,922 were opposed, suggest there could be a renewed push to revisit this issue.
The survey results will be discussed at the May convention of the Conservation Congress, which will then forward final positions to the DNR and its board.
Rob Bohmann, chair of the Conservation Congress, declined to speculate on how the body will vote. But Dan Schuller, director of state parks at the DNR, suggests in a statement that some longtime hunts in select parks could be reinstated. These are special seasons that fall outside the two-month window specified in the December 2012 DNR board ruling. “We are looking at some seasons that were previously approved by administrative rule,” says Schuller.
Lowry is incredulous that this issue might be reopened after more than 2,000 comments — most of them critical — were submitted to the DNR in response to its original proposal that would have allowed longer hunting and trapping seasons in state parks.
“For me it’s an issue of what kind of democracy we have here in Wisconsin,” she says. “Generally majority rules,” she adds. A 2010 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that 17% of Wisconsin residents had hunted in the last year.
Melissa Smith has been an active opponent of Wisconsin’s new wolf hunting season, but she says she is not opposed to “ethical hunting.” Lowry, too, says there is a difference between a traditional hunt and one where animals have been corralled and trapped by dogs. “It gets away from hunting and becomes something much more disturbing and inhumane to animals. This is the pleasure of killing for killing.”
But Bohmann, who has been hunting since he was five, defends the use of dogs in hunting.
“My son harvested a bear with the aid of hounds,” he says. “These hunters are not barbaric.”
He himself hunts with a Labrador retriever and says he has spent thousands of dollars on the dog’s training and vet care. One of the best parts of the hunt, he says, is “watching our dogs do what they were trained to do.”
His family also eats everything it kills, he says. “We don’t go overboard.”
Lowry and Smith would like to steer the conservation conversation away from hunting, trapping and fishing. Almost every one of the questions put to the public at the Conservation Congress meeting had to do with killing animals, says Lowry.
“I didn’t see anything about expanding public lands for hiking. I didn’t see anything for biking trails.”
Smith points out that one of the questions asked whether willow stakes, usually protected on DNR-managed land, could be cut since they are often used by trappers to mark and anchor traps.
“Can we talk about wetlands rather than pulling willows for trapping?” she asks.
Bohmann says that the Congress has recently formed an environmental study committee, but that hunting, fishing and trapping have to be part of the discussion since wildlife can destroy habitat.
“We have a responsibility to manage habitat in our state parks,” he says. “But we have an equal responsibility to manage wildlife populations.”