As plans and a possible law for future deer seasons went public April 14, we saw lawmakers wrapping themselves in our heritage, traditions and "hunting culture," and a lobbyist/former lawmaker embracing "science-based management practices."
We also heard DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp assuring deer hunters her agency hears them. To prove it, she's trying to deliver "the kind of deer season they want to see in Wisconsin." That means she's basically flushing earn-a-buck rules statewide, doling out antlerless permits like candy at July Fourth parades and pledging to "engage our partners and other stakeholders in a meaningful conversation on deer management."
Stepp has a goal: "I hope that by rebuilding trust in our hunters we can engage them and have them take ownership of their role in deer management."
Yep. Everyone's saying the right things. Too bad they soon canceled each other out when issuing press releases late last week.
How can Secretary Stepp build hunters' trust while Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, and Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, push a bill to outlaw earn-a-buck and October gun hunts, thus trampling Stepp's turf and eliminating her most valuable deer-management chips?
Talk about disrespect and undercutting a fellow Republican and agency chief. Think about it. On April 14, Stepp announced she was tabling earn-a-buck for 2011, even in the chronic wasting disease zone. "We need the cooperation of our partners, the landowners and the hunters, to help manage this deer herd," she said. "That is why we've decided to implement herd-control tools more acceptable to hunters in 2011."
The same day, Stepp emailed DNR wildlife managers statewide, informing them why she wouldn't follow their more aggressive advice. Even though her plan assures deer herds will reproduce rapidly in many areas and prove more difficult to control in 2012 and beyond, she took the risk to "set the stage for this open dialogue on deer management."
What was her reward for risking her reputation with agency biologists she calls "creative," "talented" and "equally passionate?" Before day's end, the Moulton-Tiffany bill to pre-empt Stepp's plan was making news. The next day they announced the "Deer Hunters Heritage Bill."
They said their bill protects the "historic and traditional integrity" of deer season. They claimed earn-a-buck and October gun hunts "undermined the culture of deer hunting," and that their bill addresses "the social and economic future of deer hunting in Wisconsin."
If that wasn't enough blarney and buck pellets to fill your deer camp privy, former state Sen. Bob Welch, now a lobbyist and spokesman for the Hunter's Rights Coalition, weighed in on the bill through an HRC press release:
"This bill is long overdue and will provide hunters relief from the unpopular practices that have undermined the culture of deer hunting, caused hunters to quit and took the fun out of deer camp. Unlike recent temporary suspension of these programs by the DNR, this bill permanently protects the social and economic future of Wisconsin's deer hunting heritage."
Ah yes, Sen. Welch; the original Deerslayer; a modern-day Natty Bumppo. He'll be 53 in June, but there's no record of him buying a deer license until 2001, and he's bought only three since. And unless he registered a deer in 2010, he's yet to shoot one. Yet he dares to speak for Wisconsin's 620,000 gun-deer hunters and 250,000 archery-deer hunters?
Just how awful is our deer hunting — and how threatened are our traditions — when last fall's archery buck kill (42,115) ranked No. 3 all-time and the 2009 archery buck kill (41,402) ranked No. 5 all-time? Further, archery's top 10 years for deer-license sales occurred since 1999, with a record 266,435 in 2008.
Meanwhile, if earn-a-buck explains our declining gun-license sales, why did those sales peak 21 years ago at 699,275, six years before Rep. John Gard, R-Peshtigo, invented EAB?
Welch also claims the bill provides DNR the "ability to implement science-based management practices like extended seasons, antlerless tags and early hunts to control the spread of disease."
Really? Where? Consider this, Sen. Bumppo: Providing only their word for collateral, hunters in CWD zones in 2006 boasted they would use your "practices" to shoot more antlerless deer than ever if the agency surrendered EAB. The DNR agreed to let them try, and hunters lost the bet. They shot 8,500 fewer antlerless deer than in 2005 and 20,500 fewer than in 2004.
Even so, Stepp wants to let hunters try redeeming themselves this fall. Moulton, Tiffany and Welch should stifle themselves and let her make the wager.
Patrick Durkin is a free-lance writer who covers outdoors for the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.