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."