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Proposals to expand crossbow hunting are just one of many controversial topics addressed in recent years at Wisconsin's statewide fish and wildlife hearings.
Proposals to expand crossbow hunting are just one of many controversial topics addressed in recent years at Wisconsin's statewide fish and wildlife hearings. / Patrick Durkin/Correspondent
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If attendance at the statewide fish and wildlife hearings April 11 exceeds the 4,360 who attended in 2010, we might thank Mike Riggle of Medford.

Who's Mike Riggle? He's a Conservation Congress delegate for Taylor County, and serves on the Congress' big-game committee. When that committee met Dec. 18, Riggle suggested the Congress include a proposal for next Monday's hearings asking if crossbows should be legal for everyone during Wisconsin's archery deer season.

But Riggle's rationale went beyond the proposal's merits. He said the Congress needed controversy to boost attendance at the hearings, which are held simultaneously in each county. He worried that if attendance remains low, the Congress might become irrelevant, maybe even eliminated.

After discussing the proposal itself, the committee passed it, 8-7 with one abstention.

A conspiracy was born. (Insert dramatic music here.) Surely the big-game committee endorsed Riggle's ulterior motives.

The plot thickened Jan. 7 when the Congress' executive committee discussed the question and approved it for the hearings ballot.

Congress Chairman Ed Harvey conceded the proposal might increase attendance, but said that's not why it made the ballot. The majority considered it a legitimate proposal. After all, since 2002 when bowhunters 65 and older were allowed to use crossbows during archery season, participation by 65- to 76-year-olds increased 66 percent. No other age group showed such increases the past decade.

Ohio, Arkansas and Wyoming were the only states in 2001 to allow crossbows during archery season. But by this fall, 26 of 50 states will allow some or all able-bodied hunters to use crossbows during all or part of their big-game archery seasons.

Even so, Wisconsin's crossbow conspiracy was making news by early February, complete with a YouTube audio clip of Riggle's Dec. 18 remarks. Unfortunately, the quality of the 2-minute clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHBDlrmkBEo) is so poor that conspirators had to transcribe it, and we must take on faith that their transcript is accurate. Judging by its sound, the audio could be a July 1975 tape of Jimmy Hoffa's killers talking underwater in scuba gear while sinking his body.

Either way, most hunters and nonhunters must wonder why a crossbow proposal would make adults act like adolescents. Fair question, because a crossbow is basically a regular bow mounted on a gunstock. Actual performance differences aren't worthy of debate.

Innocent bystanders must know only this: Recurves, longbows and compound bows are good; crossbows, evil. Likewise, Fords are good; Chevys, bad. Fly fishermen, good; worm-dunkers, bad. Frank Sinatra, good; Lady Gaga, bad.

Maybe so, but it's intriguing no one asks if Riggle's concerns about attendance are valid. Granted, the 4,360 attending last year's meeting was below the 40-year average of 7,437, but it's no record. The lows were 3,512 in 2007 and 3,830 in 1997. Attendance six other years hovered between 4,372 and 4,918.

In fact, if we exclude the 2000 hearings, which drew 30,685 to save hunting from mourning-dove huggers, attendance since 1970 averages 6,841. It surpassed 10,000 attendees only three other times: 11,007 in 2002; 13,126 in 2005; and 13,350 in 1975. Dump those four fliers and the 40-year average is 6,370.

No, if the Congress is guilty of anything, it's poor planning. Its leaders should have been content with an existing idea, a Department of Natural Resources proposal to lower the crossbow-eligible age to 55. If that had passed and proven a nonissue, we could have discussed Riggle's question rationally within three years.

If Riggle is guilty of anything, it's impatience. Controversy is never long a stranger at the hearings. One year it's crows, the next it's doves or deer. And someday we'll debate sandhill crane hunting. That will draw crowds. Another day we'll debate wolf hunting. That will draw crowds, too.

Besides, who would eliminate the spring hearings; the Legislature? Are you serious? Have you attended legislative hearings, especially those held by lawmakers now shaming our Capitol? Those folks make the Conservation Congress and its hearings look like the Founding Fathers and the Continental Congress.

But if attendance jumps at the April 11 hearings, Riggle and the Conservation Congress can't claim full credit. They must share it with the crossbow conspirators, who always take the bait.

Patrick Durkin is a freelance writer who covers outdoors for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. E-mail him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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