Wisconsin’s wild deer belong to you. So do its wolves, bears, eagles, and swans — and even its slightly less charismatic creatures like bullfrogs and bluegills. They belong to you, me, and everyone else. The state is only holding them in public trust for us. And all those state forests and state parks? They belong to you, too.
If you want a say in how they’re managed, here’s your chance. At 7 p.m. Monday, April 14, the Conservation Congress’ annual spring hearings will be held in each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties. Woody Allen once said 80 percent of life is just showing up, and these hearings are a great example. Wisconsin has a population of over 5.7 million. In 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are available from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 938,000 of us went fishing, 763,000 of us went hunting, and 2.15 million of us engaged in wildlife watching. Last year only 6,069 of us bothered to show up at the spring hearings and vote. Nearly all were hunters and anglers.
Although 2011 legislative changes weakened the Conservation Congress and gave more power to politicians, these annual spring hearings are still your best chance of influencing legislation that affects our state’s fish, wildlife (game and non-game species), and public lands and waterways. Even though they’re called “fish and game” hearings, you don’t have to be an angler or hunter to attend. Our state’s natural resources belong to everyone, and many of the issues discussed and voted on at these hearings are relevant for all of us.
Here are just two examples from this year’s ballot. One proposal would “allow the owner of a hunting dog the ability to retrieve their hunting dog without landowners’ permission.” If passed, it could allow hunters to more easily collect dogs that stray onto your property when you’re not around. That’s good for hunters, their dogs, and maybe even for you. But if abused, could the law mean you’d have little recourse when trespassers claim to be searching for a lost hunting dog that may or may not exist? Another proposal would “allow launch fees only after adequate free access has been established to the state’s waterways.” If passed, it could mean the end of launch fees at your local boat landing. But in cases where local municipalities or citizens’ groups are paying for construction and maintenance, could it instead mean the end of your local boat landing? Neither question is simple, and both are worth discussing.
Anglers, hunters, and trappers are often wary of “outsiders” who show up at these hearings. They should remember that not all non-hunters are anti-hunters, and that raising questions about a particular detail isn’t the same as being opposed to all hunting. Welcome these people, because they’re the future — and a few of them might even turn out to be future hunters. Some won’t. They have just as much right to show up and get involved as you do.
If this will be your first time, here are a few tips. First, remember to bring a driver’s license or other ID in case you’re asked to confirm your county of residence. Second, arrive early and stay late. Don’t read the questions, complete your ballot, and bolt for the door before discussion even begins. Stick around. Listen and learn, but don’t be afraid to voice your opinions. That’s why you came. If you’re not wearing camo, and if your jacket is from REI rather than Cabela’s, it’s OK. Say hello to the other people at your table. They’ll probably say hello back. If they look a little surly, maybe they’re just tired after a long day at work. Like you, they decided to show up anyway.
So what else happens at these hearings? After everyone has voted on proposed rule changes, attendees can introduce their own resolutions. The ones that pass locally will eventually work their way through the system and be voted on statewide. Another item of business each year is electing new delegates to the Conservation Congress. If you’d like to really make a difference, consider becoming one yourself.
For details on how the spring hearings work and for locations, go to the DNR website. All of the meetings will be at 7 p.m. Monday, April 14. (The Dane County meeting will be at Middleton High School.) This land is your land. So are its deer, wolves, bullfrogs, and bluegills. So show up.
Al Cambronne, who lives near Superior, is the author of "Deerland: America’s Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness."