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Law opening Wisconsin state parks to trapping and hunting sailed under the radar with minimal opposition
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Lowry: "This clearly isn't democracy at work.'
Lowry: "This clearly isn't democracy at work.'

Their children have now left home, but Patty Lowry and her husband continue to spend a lot of time in the outdoors doing what they've always done: camping, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Almost always, they head to Wisconsin's state parks, including Governor Nelson State Park, which is near their Madison home.

"We can't afford our own private cabin in the woods," says Lowry. "For us, state parks are the only option to access these kinds of lands. State parks have played an important role in our lives and in the lives of our children."

Lowry was one of the 112 people who attended a listening session in Fitchburg in late October hosted by the Natural Resources Board on a new law that, come Jan. 1, opens all state parks to hunting and trapping. While state forests and some state parks have allowed hunting in the past, trapping was always off limits. The Department of Natural Resources is recommending opening parks for these uses from Oct. 15 through the Thursday prior to the Memorial Day weekend.

Lowry says she is not the only one who was "completely unaware that this law had passed. I didn't know it existed until I received an email from a friend."

According to notes kept by a DNR staffer, 39 people spoke at the Fitchburg meeting. Of those, 34 voiced either general opposition to the law or to particular parks being open to hunting and trapping.

Numbers were similar at other listening sessions around the state. Of the 49 who spoke at the session in Appleton, attended by 140 people, 38 were opposed (the written attendance slips used by the board do not ask people whether they support or oppose the topic at hand). Rep. Al Ott (R-Forest Junction) acknowledged the tenor of the opposition.

"I suppose you want to throw stones at us," said Ott, a cosponsor of the legislation. Ott said these new park guidelines were part of a larger bill -- Assembly 311 -- that passed the Legislature with bipartisan support. He allowed that sometimes the Legislature does not do enough homework upfront and that this was one of those times.

But, he added, lawmakers were not trying to "pull anything over your eyes."

That's not how it feels to Lowry, though. Or, it would appear, to many other residents who have expressed similar sentiments at the listening sessions and in written comments to the Department of Natural Resources.

"This clearly isn't democracy at work," says Lowry.

Recruiting hunters

Assembly Bill 311 was introduced in the state Legislature on Oct. 6, 2011. It called for, among other things, creating a council to help recruit hunters and trappers and allowing hunting and trapping on any land purchased with state funds under the Warren Knowles-Gaylord Nelson stewardship program, which helps groups and local governments buy land for conservation.

Called the Sporting Heritage Bill, it was designed to help recruit converts to hunting. Participation in the sport is dwindling in Wisconsin, especially in relation to other recreational pursuits, including walking and viewing natural scenery.

The provision to allow trapping or any kind of hunting in all state parks was added on Oct. 20, 2011. The amendment, eventually adopted and passed as part of Act 168, reverses state law. While state parks have been generally closed to such activities, they are now open to hunting and trapping unless the Natural Resources Board determines that prohibiting it is "necessary to protect public safety or to protect a unique animal or plant community."

The full Assembly overwhelmingly approved (PDF) the bill on Nov. 1, 84-12. Most of the Madison-area Democratic delegation voted no, except for Rep. Brett Hulsey.

The one public hearing on the Assembly bill was held on Oct. 11, before the amendment on hunting and trapping in state parks was added.

The substitute bill did get a public hearing on Dec. 7 before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environment, which unanimously approved the measure. Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) was the only no vote in the entire Senate when the body took it up March 7, 2012. Area senators Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and Mark Miller (D-Madison) voted (PDF) with the majority.

Little organized opposition

Larry Konopacki, senior staff attorney with the Legislative Council, says that while the bill moved quickly through the Assembly, its pace slowed considerably in the Senate. There was ample time for public input and comment "before it went to the governor's desk" for signing, he says.

So how is it that so many people are surprised to see this law coming down the pike?

It looks like a few things came into play.

Konopacki says people usually get wind of a public hearing one of two ways. They hear about it in the news or belong to an organization that monitors legislation and alerts its membership to issues of concern.

There was some media attention at the time but not a lot. The most forceful commentary against the proposal was penned by Patricia Randolph, an animal rights activist, whose column runs in The Capital Times.

Timing likely was a factor: News broke on Oct. 11, 2011, that efforts were under way to recall Gov. Scott Walker, a process that would consume reporters and activists around the state for months.

But mostly there appears to have been little organized opposition at the time. Pro-hunting groups showed up in force at the Dec. 7 public hearing before the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Environment to support the proposal, as did current and former lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Steineke (R-Kaukauna) and former state Sen. Bob Welch, representing the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, Wisconsin Hunters Rights Coalition, Safari Club International and Wisconsin FORCE.

Only five individuals testified against the bill: two as private citizens, one associated with the Ice Age Alliance, and two members of the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. Though the Madison Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy lobbied against the bill, according to the Government Accountability Board, neither group appears to have testified at the public hearing.

A group called Friends of Wisconsin State Parks issued a statement a few weeks ago noting its desire to keep state parks closed to hunting and trapping. It also notes, erroneously, that there was no public hearing on the bill. Perhaps that is why no representative from the group showed up to testify.

Safety issues

Concerns raised about the law at the listening sessions were varied. Some warned that donors would stop giving money to acquire land for conservation. Tourism officials from Door County talked about how the prolonged winter hunting season would deter visitors, and others talked about safety concerns, including how hikers and skiers would be vulnerable to stray bullets and traps.

The law requires a 100-yard buffer between hunting and trapping activities and such high-traffic areas as campgrounds, trails and parking lots. The Department of Natural Resources is currently fashioning maps to indicate those areas that would be closed to hunting and trapping, and its recommendations will be considered by the Natural Resources Board at its Dec. 11-12 meeting.

The deadline for submitting comments to the DNR is Nov. 23. The deadline for submitting comments directly to the board or registering to speak at the board's meeting is Dec. 7 at 4 p.m.

The Friends of Wisconsin State Parks warns in its statement that bringing deadly and silent sports into close proximity "compromises the safety of the millions of park visitors each year who hike, bike, ski, bird watch, walk dogs, and who enjoy the solitude of nature."

State parks director Dan Schuller counters that hunting incidents in Wisconsin are rare, that most state hunters have completed hunter safety programs, and that they have excellent safety records. He says the plans being proposed for hunting and trapping in state parks are the same ones in place for state forests.

But Lowry says it is only a matter of time before people or pets are harmed by a stray bullet or a trap left in the woods: "It"s not if, but when."

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