Money & Politics Blog: Hunters on both sides of controversial bills

In sizing up the just-concluded 2011-12 legislative session, the Associated Press included hunters among its list of “winners,” noting the passage of bills to end the state’s earn-a-buck deer program and allow wolf hunting.

But the list of “losers” could have included hunters as well. What the session really showed was the success of certain pro-hunting groups in advancing their agenda, over others who also support hunting.

Take the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, which represents more than 170 hunting, fishing, trapping and forestry-related groups. WWF is ardently pro-hunting, and even registered at a public hearing in favor of the wolf hunting bill, which Gov. Scott Walker has just signed. But it opposed ending earn-a-buck, which requires hunters to first bag a doe, to keep deer populations in check. And it fought another successful bill to relax the rules for bear hunting.

“Bear hunting is a sport we support,” explains George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, “but it is also very controversial.”

Meyer, the former head of the state Department of Natural Resources, notes that some people would like to see bear hunting outlawed, and have tried to do so. That’s why some WWF members opposed changing the bear hunt law to allow broader use of dog training and end the requirement that bear hunters display a back tag on their outermost garment.

“They didn’t want to remove something that protects the sport,” says Meyer, who predicts that the changes pushed through by bear hunters over his group’s objections will increase conflicts and fuel anti-bear-hunt sentiment.

WWF also joined more than a dozen state groups, from the Wisconsin Farmers Union to the Nature Conservancy, in opposing a permanent axing of earn-a-buck. WWF has called the program “the most effective method to reduce deer populations to the level tolerable to landowners.”

But the bill passed, with some bipartisan support, and was signed into law by Gov. Walker. Meyer fears that without this mechanism of herd control, the deer population will spike, causing problems for which hunters will be blamed, not unfairly.

Among those lobbying to end earn-a-buck were various members of the Wisconsin Hunters Rights Coalition, an umbrella group formed in 2005. The coalition includes the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, the state chapters of Safari Club International, and Wi-Force (Wisconsin Firearm Owners, Ranges, Clubs & Educators.)

These and other hunting groups, Meyer says, have “become very actively involved in Republican politics,” sometimes to the detriment of wildlife habitat.

For instance, Safari Club International and United Sportsmen of Wisconsin, a lobby group formed last year, backed the state Assembly’s unsuccessful bill to revamp the state’s mining rules, while the Safari Club, Wisconsin Bear Hunters and United Sportsmen supported bills to relax state rules for developing on or near wetlands.

These bills were opposed by other conservation groups, including WWF, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, and Wisconsin Trout Unlimited. Meyer says some hunters groups are serving “to give cover to legislators who are pushing through bills harmful to the environment.”

Bob Welch, a former legislator who represents the Hunters Rights Coalition (he’s also the lobbyist for the Wisconsin Bear Hunters, Safari Club and Wi-Force), passed up an opportunity to comment.

But Scott Meyer of United Sportsmen of Wisconsin said the state’s wetlands rules remain stringent and the bill’s remediation provisions mean more wetlands will be created than lost. And he believes the mining bill would have benefited hunters and anglers, because lands used for mining could be remediated in ways that improve habitat — and ensure continued public access.

“People have to look at the big picture on this,” Scott Meyer says. “Good conservation comes from a good economy. When you don’t have good-paying jobs, there’s a huge downturn in the money you’re able to raise in the conservation community.”

That’s probably something both sides can agree on.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.