In the last two years, the state has drastically decreased grants to preserve natural areas where hunting is restricted or banned.

A few years ago, the state subsidized purchases of thousands of acres with restrictions aimed at avoiding conflicts between hunters and other people.

But during a two-year period ending in mid-2013, it dropped to just 200 acres statewide, according to reports compiled by the state Department of Natural Resources for a legislative committee.

A 2007 law calls on the DNR to guard against excessive bans on public access for hunting, trapping, fishing, hiking and cross-country skiing on property purchased through the state’s Knowles-

Nelson Stewardship Program, which provides money to prevent development on land that is important for environmental or recreational reasons.

Needless hunting bans in Waukesha County, Dane County and other places sparked complaints and prompted the change, said George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which lobbied on behalf of sportsmen.

But some hikers, cross-country skiers and wildlife watchers aren’t happy, leaders of several conservation groups say.

The sound of gunfire makes many non-hunters uneasy, even though danger to passers-by is minimal during most hunting seasons, said Kevin Thusius, director of land conservation for the 3,000-member Ice Age Trail Alliance.

“There are people who will not use the trails when there’s hunting, because of the fear,” Thusius said.

The organization closes sections of the 640-mile trail during the nine-day gun deer season, Thusius said. But potential for injury is probably greater during the much longer small game season, when hunters typically shoot .22-caliber bullets that can travel a mile or more, much farther than pellets or larger slugs used in the deer, turkey and duck seasons, he said.

The problem with the new rules is that they make it more difficult for managers of stewardship lands to reduce conflicts among users by taking steps such as restricting small game hunting when large numbers of hikers are on the property, Thusius and others said.

Fears unfounded, some say

The wildlife federation’s Meyer said hikers don’t need to be afraid of hunters or trappers.

“Most hunters are very conscious of safety,” Meyer said. “If you are a hunter, you’re not going to want to hunt where there are hikers around, for safety reasons and because there won’t be a lot of game where a lot of a people are walking.”

Some people have railed against trapping as being unsafe for pets and humans, but Meyer said traps aren’t set in traveled areas.

The 2007 law took full effect in 2010 after the DNR wrote administrative rules.

Since then, local governments and nonprofit conservation groups have applied for fewer and fewer grants that would face rejection because of limitations on hunting, said administrators at the DNR and the organizations that seek stewardship funding.

Some owners won’t sell their land rights to conservation groups if it means the property will become a public hunting ground, said Jim Welsh, director of the Natural Heritage Land Trust in Madison.

Revival effort

Worried that Wisconsin’s hunting traditions are fading, Republicans who have controlled state government since 2011 have taken steps to revive the pastime, including opening sections of state parks to hunting, a move that prompted thousands of complaints.

The 2007 law was passed by a more bipartisan statehouse as a state budget provision that also renewed funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, which pays for DNR land purchases and provides matching funds for nonprofits and local governments.

The state still approves stewardship money for some land where hunting is banned because of safety concerns, usually in cities where homes or highways are nearby. But there have been fewer of those grants.

The 2007 law and the new administrative rules have made changes that are significant, but they are more subtle than they may appear at first glance, said Mike Carlson, government relations director for the statewide Gathering Waters Conservancy.

Before the rules changed, most stewardship lands already allowed at least some hunting, because it helps control large populations of deer and turkey that eat too much vegetation in a natural area, Carlson said.

Land managers reduced conflicts between hunters and hikers by doing things like banning hunting for small game for parts of the season when large numbers of hikers were there, Carlson said.

Now, those kinds of options are greatly reduced for newly acquired property, so land trusts seldom pursue acreage when the seller or neighbors want to control who, if anyone, hunts the land, Carlson said.

Under certain circumstances, the DNR can allow a land manager to limit the number of hunters and trappers through a permit system, but most conservation groups said they don’t have staff to administer such programs.

Dane County uses a lottery to permit just one person each year to trap on a small piece of stewardship land near Cottage Grove, said county parks director Darren Marsh.

So far, Dane officials have adapted to the changes, but it may become more difficult to conserve valuable natural areas in the future as cities and villages expand toward those areas, creating potential conflicts, said Laura Guyer, county real estate and acquisition director.

In one case, state rules prompted a Dane County community to make an exception to its hunting ban.

The result was that DNR approved a grant to help the Natural Heritage Land Trust conserve 40 acres on the Yahara River on the outskirts of Stoughton, said land trust conservation specialist Caleb Pourchot.

Development rights

In an action closely related to the 2007 law change, the state has rolled back financial support for conservation easements — agreements in which landowners give up the right to develop environmentally sensitive land while maintaining ownership. At the same time, landowners interested in easements have grown wary, the Natural Heritage Land Trust’s Welsh said.

Acquiring easements is a crucial method of preserving wildlife habitat at low cost without removing land from tax rolls, Welsh said.

But many owners won’t give up the right to decide who fires guns or sets traps on their land, Welsh said.

“They want to control the type of hunter who hunts on their property,” Welsh said. “When you open your land to public hunting, you don’t have any control over how many people hunt.”

After passage of the 2007 law, the DNR adopted an unwritten policy to put the brakes on conservation easement grants that restrict public access too tightly, said Douglas Haag, who oversees the stewardship program as deputy director of the DNR facilities and lands bureau.

Kimberlee Wright, an attorney who helped rewrite the administrative rules when she worked for the DNR, said the changes never made sense to her because they apply a blanket policy instead of basing management practices on a scientific evaluation of the land and its uses.

“Some of these lands are used for environmental education,” said Wright, who worked for The Nature Conservancy before becoming director of Midwest Environmental Advocates in Madison. “You may have school groups that don’t come anymore because you’ll have random gunfire that nobody has any control over.”

The Ice Age Trail Alliance’s Thusius, who is a hunter and isn’t rattled by the sounds of a few isolated gunshots, said people regularly call to say they won’t hike amid gunfire.

But he doesn’t need to pick up the office phone to hear those concerns.

“My wife and I, we get to a site and she hears ‘bang-bang,’ and we’ve got the dog or got the kids (and) she says ‘Ehhhhh, let’s go back,’” Thusius said. “People think that bang means a projectile traveling a mile, and it conjures up fear and it means the land isn’t used.”

He said one goal of the alliance is to educate members and trail users about how unlikely it is for a duck hunter’s pellets or a deer hunter’s slug to travel far enough to harm other people.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.