Posted April 20, 2006 Hunters win fight against October gun deer seasons
December hunt leaves snow riders bitter in defeat
By Ed Culhane Post-Crescent staff writer
Hunters won an unexpected victory Tuesday when a joint legislative committee backed the Natural Resources Board and an experimental plan to expand December Zone T gun deer hunts statewide.
If the board agrees to limit the experiment to one year, it would also mean a one-year moratorium on Zone T hunts in October, beginning this fall.
Zone T hunts — four-day gun hunts which target antlerless deer only — are designed to reduce the number of deer in overpopulated areas.
Hunters long have complained the late October gun hunts disrupt deer movements at the height of the early archery season and diminish the quality of the traditional November gun deer season.
Tuesday's vote by the Joint Committee on the Review of Administrative Rules was a sudden reversal of fortune for the Association of Wisconsin Snowmobile Clubs, which has opposed December gun hunts north of U.S. 8.
The AWSC argues the four-day gun hunts — in the second week of December — will cause some landowners to close their land to sledders during the hunt, breaking links in trail systems.
AWSC leaders were bitter in defeat.
"We know the program. The AWSC runs the program. We take care of it and make it happen," said Morris Nelson, chairman of the AWSC's legislative committee. "But according to the DNR and the hunters, we don't have a problem. I guess they know more about it than we do."
Hunter conservationists hailed the action, saying legislative leaders on the joint committee were wisely restoring authority over the hunt to the seven citizen members of the Natural Resources Board and the wildlife biologists and game managers in the state Department of Natural Resources.
More than 40 hunters attended Tuesday's committee meeting, wearing blaze orange. Testimony in favor of the Natural Resources Board came from the Conservation Congress, the Wisconsin Deer Hunters Association, Whitetails Unlimited, the Wisconsin Bowhunters Association and the Wisconsin Muzzleloading Association. George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, also testified on behalf of hunters.
"I didn't think we would win this battle," Meyer said Wednesday. "The majority of the committee opposed our position and favored the snowmobile position. Slow but sure we took back the day."
The experimental season plan is designed to determine whether hunters, given expanded opportunities in December, can control the size of the deer herd in the absence of the effective but unpopular October Zone T hunts.
Ralph Fritsch of Kaukauna, who chairs the big game committee of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, said the various hunting groups had reached consensus on a season structure for the first time in 25 to 30 years. But the plan was upended when the AWSC convinced the natural resource committees in the Assembly and the Senate to object to that portion of the rule calling for statewide Zone T hunts in December.
Chief Warden Randy Stark testified Tuesday that snowmobiling and hunting easily co-exist in Michigan, according to his counterpart in that state.
AWSC leaders remain adamant in their opposition.
"There is no room in the woods for a gun hunter and a snowmobiler at the same time," said Marv Haberland of Kaukauna, Outagamie County delegate to the AWSC.
For hunters to prevail, and for deer herd management to be restored to the Natural Resources Board, it meant this Republican-controlled joint committee had to overturn actions by the Republican-controlled standing oversight committees in both the state Assembly and Senate.
"What happened yesterday was probably something we will never see again," Fritsch said.
Meyer credited committee members for listening intently to nearly seven hours of testimony.
"This was a message that the sportsmen want professional management of the deer herd," Meyer said, "and they don't want it done by the Legislature. This was an amazing turnaround. In my recollection, I don't recall this committee ever overriding two standing committees."
Meyer said co-chairman Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, deserved credit for talking to sportsmen about finding a middle ground.In the end, the committee voted 6-3 to send the rule back to the Natural Resources Board with a request that the two-year experimental season structure be limited to a single year, this year, with the possibility of being extended a second year.
Tom Hauge, director of the DNR's bureau of wildlife management, said the agency would have to scramble to put the new season structure in place.
"It is not going be without some cost," Hauge said Wednesday. "We've been selling licenses since March 10. We will have to retrieve those tags."
Early estimates put the changeover cost at between $60,000 and $70,000.
"It's not a trivial matter," Hauge said. "But we also recognize all the hard work and energy that people put into this proposal. We stand ready to implement it if that's what they want."
Ed Culhane can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or by e-mail at eculhane@ postcrescent.com.
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