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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Light Snow Fog/Mist
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Wisconsin conservation tradition under attack
On the eve of another deer season, one hunter laments what's lost

At dinner last week we knew where our food came from. Exactly where it came from. We knew it was a doe, probably 2 years old. We knew the exact date and time on which it had been shot and on what piece of land. And we knew where the cut of meat (the tenderloin or "backstrap") came from on that deer.

Dinner came after a long day in the woods, sitting silently for hours on end harnessed into tall pines. It was bow hunting season in Wisconsin and none of us had shot an arrow all day, yet we all counted it a day well spent.

And that's a big part of what gets lost by those who see hunting as a videogame. The action is not endless. It's sporadic, and sometimes you can wait all day and it never comes. Hunting requires patience, the ability to just sit quietly for very long periods of time, to listen carefully. Those who go deer hunting and then complain that they didn't see any deer are missing the point entirely. Seeing deer is a bonus. Having the chance to kill and consume one is an honor. It is not anybody's birthright. You earn it through skill as an individual and through wise public policy as a citizen.

But far too much of natural resource policy in this state is being run by the kind of people who can't distinguish between real hunting and Grand Theft Auto V -- by the kind of people who see resource extraction as more profitable than resource stewardship and renewal.

There are too many cases in point to be documented here, but let's just settle for two of the more recent and most egregious. There's the bogus state budget amendment that would have shipped a half-million dollars to the dubious United Sportsmen of Wisconsin to promote outdoor hunting skills. Never mind that nobody in the organization had any expertise in teaching outdoor hunting skills. Never mind that the organization didn't even have the basic nonprofit status required of a successful applicant. What mattered was that the group, which takes the Grand Theft Auto view of hunting, was politically tied to then Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder. Luckily that sham was exposed by the media and eventually stopped by the governor.

Another sham that has been reported in the media but not likely to be stopped by anyone is the effort currently under way to limit public access to public land around the proposed Gogebic Taconite mine in northern Wisconsin. Republican legislators want to limit public protest and information gathering around the mine site, which is bad enough. The message this really sends is that an outside extractive industry is viewed as more important and more worthy of access to public land than are homegrown Wisconsin hunters, anglers, hikers and birdwatchers.

Natural resource protection was, for at least a period, a statewide and even national consensus that transcended political affiliations. Republicans like Gov. Warren Knowles, who later served on the board of the Wisconsin chapter of the Nature Conservancy, would be appalled to see what their old party is up to these days. And at the national level, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality were created under the Nixon administration.

But with a proud tradition of conservation behind it, the Republican Party now seems determined to keep it there.

So for now the field is left to the Democrats. But while the Democrats are better for hunting, they don't relate as well to hunters. If the Democrats are to be effective advocates for conservation, they need to get into the culture of conservation and understand the Wisconsin deer camp.

Now, they can do this. It's a place that's changing in ways Democrats should like. Hunting is starting to catch on, albeit in small numbers so far, among women, urban locavores and urban kids. In fact, the Department of Natural Resources runs a small but fully subscribed program to introduce hunting and fishing to "nontraditional" populations, meaning those other than middle-aged white guys like me.

As we approach the big season, the traditional nine-day gun deer hunt that begins on Nov. 23 and ends the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I like to think of Marilyn Jordahl. Marilyn and Bud Jordahl bought a piece of beaten, abused property in Richland County in 1968 and spent the rest of their lives bringing it back to health. Their son and my friend Jordy and his family now own the land.

Marilyn was a hunter. The very rare woman in the woods on opening day, a rifle in her hand ready and able to take home some venison if the opportunity arose but content, like any real hunter, to just enjoy the day if it didn't. It's possible that this season I'll spend some time in what still is called "Marilyn's stand."

If hunting -- and the conservation and natural resources protection movements it spawns -- are to survive, we need more people with names like Marilyn to take a stand both literally and otherwise.

Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave.

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