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So much for using crossbows to trigger attendance-boosting controversies for Monday night's statewide fish and wildlife hearings.

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You'll recall the Wisconsin Conservation Congress floated a question asking if crossbows should be legal for everyone during archery deer season. Congress delegate Mike Riggle of Medford thought the idea might ignite enough debate to pack hearings in all 72 counties.

Granted, the usual opponents claimed crossbows would "end bowhunting as we know it." But crossbows don't inspire the fear, dread and knuckle-dragging nonsense we heard when creating a mourning dove season in 2000, or when trying to condone feral cat shooting in 2005.

Therefore, statewide attendance reached 5,574 Monday night, only 28 percent more than the 4,360 who attended 2010's hearings. In fact, this year's attendance was 23 percent lower than the 7,216 average since 1970.

Even so, Monday's hearings provided guidance for the Conservation Congress, Natural Resources Board and legislators trying to gauge public opinion. For instance, attendees opposed making crossbows legal for everyone during archery season, 3,017 to 1,969, or 60.5 percent to 39.5 percent. By county, the idea failed 58-13-1.

However, voters approved lowering the age for crossbow use to 55 during archery season. That vote was 2,806 to 2,198, a 56-44 percentage; and 55-16-1 by county. Crossbows are currently legal for people 65 and older, or those with doctor-certified handicaps.

The age-55 crossbow proposal passed as a congress advisory question in 2010, and returned this year as a Department of Natural Resources proposal. To become law, it must be enacted by the Legislature.

Both crossbow questions generated nearly identical debates from the same speakers. The age-55 question was No. 41 on the ballot. Mr. Point and Mr. Counterpoint rose, fired and rested. When the crossbows-for-all question came up seven spots later, Mr. Point and Mr. Counterpoint reloaded, rose, fired their previous insights and rested again.

The only thing different was the votes' outcome. Why is it OK for people 55 and older to hunt with crossbows, but not people 12 to 54? Well, study the crowd. As is custom for most such hearings I've covered the past 32 years, older people outnumbered the rest.

The votes suggest people my age (55) and older have no problem giving themselves crossbow privileges, but deem younger folks unworthy. At least for now.

Perhaps the next most interesting vote concerned Question 46, which asked if deer baiting and feeding should cease 10 days before the nine-day firearms deer season. Voters approved the restriction, 3,066 to 1,928, a 61-39 percentage; and 59-12-1 by county. In other words, a statewide landslide against baiting.

Further, if you count only the 27 counties north of Wisconsin 29, where most baiting occurs, the vote was 825-720 against baiting, a 53-46 percentage; and 18-8-1 by county. However, even though that's a more convincing smack-down than November's gubernatorial election, I doubt any lawmaker will touch baiting.

Don't forget that in 2007 the congress' executive committee supported a bait ban, 19-4; as did the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation's board of directors, 42-2; and the Wisconsin Bowhunter Association's board of directors, 15-2-2. Yet no lawmaker tried ridding our deer woods of bait.

And let's remember the author of the current 2-gallon bait law is former Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, now executive assistant to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp. When asked four years ago if lawmakers should repeal his law, Gunderson said, "The 2-gallon limit would work if DNR wardens would just go out and enforce the law, and get after those who dump big piles of food in the woods." In other words, "Pffft!"

Speaking of legislative interference, voters agreed 3,794 to 561, an 87-13 percentage; and a 71-1 county majority, that lawmakers should avoid conservation issues until the Conservation Congress process addresses them.

Finally, Monday's hearings also showed hunters realize centerfire rifles are no more dangerous during deer season than shotgun slugs. Voters OK'd rifles for deer hunting in Waupaca County, 2,742 to 869, a 76-24 percentage; and 70-1-1 by county. They also approved an advisory question to legalize rifles statewide, 2,742 to 1,973, a 58-42 majority; and 61-9-2 by county.

For voting totals on all 85 questions, go to www. dnr.wi.gov/news/Breaking News_Lookup.asp?id=2052.

The top five counties for attendance were Dane, 357; Waukesha, 240; Milwaukee, 217; Portage, 200; and Washington, 170.

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

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