With this Legislature, inaction is good.

There may not be many good things coming from the pandemic, which has affected just about everything, but it did curtail the legislature from continuing its session!

     Yes, there have been good legislative actions, such as passage of the Knowles/Nelson Stewardship Program and approving state duck, pheasant and turkey stamps to fund management of those species.

     But legislators think they know it all and they want to set more rules by statute, but if natural resources rules and regulations created by statute need to be changed it then requires the legislative process, which is slow, cumbersome and not a sure thing.

     Originally legislators passed natural resource laws, until realizing it made sense to delegate conservation rules to the Conservation Commission, which is now the Natural Resources Board.

     Now legislators continually try to claw back power and authority.

     For instance, if the DNR or Natural Resources Board wanted to make changes in the following season regulations they could NOT without having the legislature meet and go through a lengthy process of debating and passing a bill:

  • Opening date of the gun deer hunting season.
  • Opening of the gamefish fishing season.
  • Further restrictions on baiting and feeding of deer.
  • Date that the opening of the wolf hunting season can begin.
  • Opening of elk hunting season.
  • Restrictions on crossing railroad tracks to hunt or fish on public lands.

     It’s particularly frustrating to sit through a legislative committee hearing and hear a state legislator try to justify that DNR shouldn’t make the rules because “they are not elected.”

     Legislators forget that DNR has input from trained ecologists AND citizens through public hearings AND the Conservation Congress.

Give me a break!  Legislators need to relinquish their hunger for power and let professionals with knowledge manage natural resources.   We can breathe a little easier now, even wearing a mask, with the legislature not meeting.

DNR Losing Valuable Knowledge Base

 How can those who don’t know about the past, make plans to advance in the future?
        Just like keeping a comfortable old flannel shirt, there is value in keeping “older things.”
When it comes to buildings many are saved and classified on historic registers, realizing that there is value in preserving history.
        But, the institutional knowledge of people is often discarded by employers as employees retire, including at the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
        In past years, it wasn’t surprising to find dedicated retired employees in wildlife research and management continuing their interest in wildlife and often volunteering with different conservation groups (such as Pheasants Forever, the Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Ducks Unlimited, Wisconsin Waterfowl Association, Whitetails Unlimited, etc.) as well as participating at DNR species management advisory committees.
        The committees are usually made up of current DNR biologists, law enforcement, customer service, and research professions, along with DNR field staff, representatives of some stakeholder organizations, most notably the Conservation Congress and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.
It was not unusual in the past to have retirees attend and participate at the committee meetings, able to relate their experience.
        The committees review and provide guidance on policies, plans, season structures, harvest quotas, and project funding. 
        But during the era when Scott Walker was governor, and Cathy Stepp served as DNR secretary, it became apparent that retired employees, and even some university faculty, were no longer welcome at the meetings.
        Tom Hauge, retired DNR director of Wildlife Management, confirms that a couple years after Cathy Stepp took over as DNR secretary, was when changes occurred.  He said that there were frustrations from groups such as the Hunters Rights Coalition that the advisory groups were completely DNR dominated, and they wanted more public input from stakeholder organizations especially before decisions were made.
        DNR retirees could participate if they represented a stakeholder group and usually the committee chair asks for comments from the public at the end of the meeting.
        Ed Frank, age 85 and retired DNR upland wildlife ecologist, said that it became clear that “We could attend, but we couldn’t speak unless the chair of the committee called on us.”
        Frank soon decided attending meetings for species that he had spent a career working on behalf of, wasn’t worth the time.
        Some of the trend may have coincided during a time when Scott Gunderson, past chair of the Assembly Natural Resources committee, was wanting to see big changes in the DNR deer program and Keith McCaffery, DNR northern deer research leader, retired from the DNR.
Tim VanDeelen was hired from Illinois to fill McCaffery’s position.
        McCaffery, who often refers to himself as a “failure at retirement”, continued to come into the office as a volunteer, even though he had retired. Gunderson was unhappy with that, telling this reporter that he feared that the “old guard” was still around and the new researcher couldn’t change the program.
        On the contrary.  VanDeelen, today Beers-Bascom professor in conservation for the UW-Madison Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, says that, “I enjoyed having Keith at the office. . .  and never once felt like I was constrained or prevented what I thought was best.
        “Keith was also a great resource.  His knowledge of the history of the deer program and the details of how the deer-harvest-permitting system behaved in different parts of Wisconsin was invaluable.”
        Van Deelen added that “Keith is one of the best friends that the deer hunters of this state ever had.  He was instrumental in building one of the best deer programs in the country.”
        But why retired employees are not welcomed remains a question that is also of concern to Bruce Gruthoff, age 81 and retired Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist who later worked for and retired from Ducks Unlimited as Regional Director.
        Gruthoff is appalled that retired DNR employees, especially those in wildlife ecology, are not allowed to actively participate in committees that are established to help manage and plan for the future of species such as pheasants, ruffed grouse, prairie chickens, pheasants, or deer.
        He said that when he took over the prairie chicken project in the early 1970s he met regularly with Fred Hamerstrom, who had retired from the department, and Gruthoff obtained valuable information and advice from this world- renowned researcher.
        He said that was invaluable, and it illustrates problems today where past managers are not allowed to participate in meetings about species that they used to be involved with.
        The history that employees have and relationships they have developed with the public, especially private landowners, are invaluable, and should be seen as assets rather than liabilities. 
        Jim Keir, retired DNR biologist in Wisconsin Rapids, said that, “It makes no sense to me that retirees in general have accumulated years of expertise and to not make use of that makes no sense.”
        Keir spent more than 20 years on the Buena Vista Marsh area.
        John Kubisiak, retired long time ruffed grouse and deer researcher with DNR, said that he had served briefly on committees but then was not advised of committee meetings or dates and was in essence “summarily dismissed after retiring.”
        Keith McCaffery, retired DNR deer researcher, said he was prohibited from species advisory committees along with other retirees and university staff during the Stepp era.  He doesn’t believe that much has changed since then.
        What he terms as “vicious” legislative leadership and appointees from the previous administration still prompt many concerns for people concerned about the management and future of the state’s natural resources.
        The question was put to the DNR and Beth Bier, DNR deputy secretary, explains that several years ago changes were made to the structure of the species management committees in response to concerns that they had grown too large and unwieldly and were not functioning in a way that provided clear stakeholder input to the DNR.
        Previous DNR leadership approved the policies, though Bier said that retired DNR staff are not prohibited from being on the committees if they are a representative of a stakeholder group.
        “They may also attend meetings as a member of the public,” she said.  Adding that it is important to continually assess operations and they will discuss with staff.
        “While our DNR retirees have a lot of expertise and passion to bring to the table, we do want to ensure diverse points of view are present.”
        All good points, and to be sure large committees can be unwieldly, and current employees need to have the freedom to do what they are trained for, paid for, and feel is correct.
        BUT, dis-inviting retirees who have the interest and passion to contribute their experience and knowledge is a waste of resources the State has long invested in.  The new “resource friendly” administration needs to take a look at its policies.

Renewing old acquaintances with Nina Leopold Bradley, daughter of the late Aldo Leopold, were some of Leopold’s students at a 2003 celebration of wildlife management and research at the Leopold Shack near Baraboo., Wisconsin. (L to R): Harry Stroebe, Arman Schwingle, Jim Hale Nina Leopold Bradley, Bob Wendt, Ruth Hine (seated), George Hartman, Don Thompson and Cliff Germain. Photo Copyright Tim Eisele

Changes needed in Wisconsin

Human beings have been facing extraordinary challenges in 2020, the likes of which most of us alive today have never faced.

But the environment is likewise facing extreme challenges, from CWD in the deer herd and VHS in fish, diseases killing oak and ash trees, shortages of clean water, draining of wetlands, loosening of environmental standards by the federal government, and loss of independence of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

      There are important underlying concerns, such as the loss of touch that today’s citizens have with natural resources (i.e. where meat and heat come from), and youngsters who would rather play indoors with video games than go outside.  Of course, the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, and it seems there are many adults who would rather sit on the couch and watch football than go out and slog through a marsh to put out a dozen decoys or walk a mile to a deer stand.

      Just as concerning is the growing divide between those who hunt and those who do not hunt.  Some hunters seem to think that everything they do is acceptable, and they deride those who don’t hunt because they don’t buy a hunting, fishing or trapping license.

      That is evident in some of the letters to the editor in outdoor publications who deride non-hunters as “fools” who “understand nothing,” or constantly chastise natural resources employees and volunteers who are trying to find solutions to problems.  That type of name calling is defamatory, serves no purpose, and is sure to drive a wedge further between hunters and non-hunters.

     This is no different than racial bigotry, chastising someone due to their beliefs rather than color of their skin.

      People who are clad in blaze orange or camouflage have many reasons to be proud of what past hunters have done and how hunting, fishing and trapping have been the backbone of conservation in the United States.  Indeed, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, called one of the greatest success stories in the world, realizes that what sportsmen have done with their license dollars and political support for conservation, has been responsible for abundance of many wildlife populations.

      But, take your blinders off and you’ll see that those who do not hunt or fish have also been active in the conservation field. Take a look at what organizations such as the Madison Audubon Society, The Prairie Enthusiasts or The Nature Conservancy have done to preserve native habitat and save rural land from being paved over and “developed” into housing sub-divisions.

      And, lest you weren’t paying attention during eighth-grade civics, you would have learned that in the United States wildlife belong to ALL the people, so everyone does have a right to have a say in how ducks, wolves, bears and all wildlife are managed. 

      The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that there were a little over 1-million waterfowl hunters in the U.S. during 2016. About the same time FWS estimated there were about 45 million birders in the U.S.:  There’s more of them than us!

      A major problem is that non-hunters haven’t had an easy way to provide financial help to the states and federal government.  Sure, you can say it’s easy to buy a hunting or fishing license; but if you don’t hunt or fish, why?

      States and the Feds need a product, license, or meaningful method for non-hunters to purchase so that money can go into the same state conservation fund as hunters and anglers.

      Is it that the state, and hunter interests, are afraid to let non-hunters “into the game” for fear they will grab more power?

      There is often a lot of concern about “anti-hunters,” and indeed there are people who don’t believe in hunting, fishing or trapping.  Some are strictly vegetarian.

      To those who are anti-harvest, they have the right to what they believe and they should be tolerated, but not bashed or persecuted.

      Indeed, the critical mass is the great majority in the middle who do not hunt or fish or trap, but realize the benefits and are willing to continue these outdoor traditions as long as they are ethically conducted and regulated by scientific management.  These are the people whom outdoorsmen need to pay more attention to.

      Both a person’s conduct in the outdoors, and just as important their conduct and “image” indoors at public meetings and events, and their letters to the editor, can turn those middle-ground supporters into a majority against hunting, fishing and trapping. The key to the future of outdoor sports is in the behavior and actions of today’s hunters, anglers and trappers.

      An official with the Montana Fish, wildlife and Parks Department said it well: “People are not necessarily concerned with the fact that we hunt, but rather how we hunt.”  He could have added the words: “How we represent ourselves as hunters to the public.”  

      Everyone should pay to protect natural resources!  We all need clean air and water, enjoy seeing eagles and herons, and walking in public wildlife management areas.  It is time that we all participated in funding these programs.

      People who hunt, fish and trap have paid much in licenses, stamps, excise taxes and donations to conservation organizations.

      But, it is time for a broad general funding mechanism for natural resources.  Missouri uses a percentage of the state sales tax and Minnesota showed it was light-years ahead of Wisconsin by establishing the Minnesota Legacy Fund.

      Minnesota was also light years ahead of Wisconsin because they banded hunters and non-hunters, (even a few of those “evil” art lovers), together to pass the increased tax.  They did it together!

      Wisconsin once used a penny-a-pack on cigarettes for purchasing land, and though legislators are shy about new taxes it is time for a way to pluck a downy feather from the public goose. The options are many, but something needs to be used. 

      We also need to return to an independent DNR and secretary selected by the Natural Resources Board. Then Governor Tommy Thompson upset the apple cart when he turned the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) into a cabinet agency.  Scott Walker put the nail in the coffin of the DNR by considering its mission as being “pro-business,” caving in to power-hungry northern politicians to eviscerate its science services bureau, and install a secretary who parroted the mantra that, “We can have business while having a clean environment,” which sounds good while DNR scientists and proposed pollution protections were shown the door.

      The DNR began leaking employees as they became eligible for retirement or grabbed by other agencies.  Exemplary employees the likes of Randy Stark, Paul DeLong, and Jack Sullivan are now long gone.

The DNR can no longer be independent of political influence as long as the governor appoints the secretary.

The citizen board was a far cleaner system and Missouri has the best system where three commissioners are of the conservative party and three are of the liberal party.  That way they HAVE to get together and board members often have a way of looking toward the long-term outlook of natural resources rather than the short-term vision of politicians who can only see as far as the next election.

      Wisconsin needs to change and allow the citizen Natural Resources Board to select the secretary, as it (and its predecessor the Conservation Commission) did from 1927 to the mid-1990s.  And if we want to improve the system, require that three Democrats and three Republicans always serve on the board, so that the legislature and governor would always have an open ear to listen to at least some of the board members.

      Wisconsin has a rich conservation history.  It has been home to Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Gaylord Nelson, Warren Knowles, Harley MacKenzie and Ernie Swift, C.D. “Buzz” Besadny, among others.

      Wisconsin is also where devoted volunteers, not so well known, work behind the scenes to improve natural resources. Look at the resumes of men and women now enshrined in the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in Stevens Point.

      Volunteers and professional resources staff continually work with committees, boards, agencies, and organizations to protect and improve natural resources.  In the past they have made Wisconsin truly unique in natural resources, and what is needed is for those who hunt and those who do not to mend their ways, to work together on the bigger challenges faced today.

Vote for Natural Resources this November

Tim Eisele,  October 9, 2018, Editorial

 

Your vote is YOUR vote.

Your vote represents your ideals and desires of how you want this State to be when your children or grandchildren are your age.

Natural resources should be an important criteria in who you vote for.  If that is the case, you would do well to take time to study who you vote for November 6.

If candidates say natural resources are important, did they really work to protect Wisconsin’s resources?  Or did they attempt to give away protections so that a business could degrade them all the while saying they back a healthy environment?

Here are a few specific examples where legislators and the Governor failed to protect natural resources:

In 2013 the legislature and Governor passed a law requiring the DNR to put up 10,000 acres of public land for sale.

Granted some were scattered parcels, but “like they say,” they aren’t making land any more.  Each piece, though small, undoubtedly had a local hunter, angler, trapper or hiker who enjoyed that parcel.

The tragedy is seen when you look at a small parcel in the Town of Oakland in Jefferson County.

On September 24, 1969 Orlando H. Perry, Sr. wrote to then-DNR wildlife manager Harry Stroebe in Madison saying that the parcel, which Perry owned, was vitally essential to the quality of Lake Ripley.

The wetland contained a stream that passed through, filtering water that flowed into Lake Ripley, a lake that to this day holds the record for the largest largemouth blackbass ever caught in Wisconsin.

“Looking backward to my younger days, I certainly recall the numerous northern pike and walleyes that have called these lands their birth grounds.  It is only a shame that the upper part of the inlet to Lake Ripley was drained, but I guess that is the story of present day Wisconsin and most of the other states,” Perry wrote to the DNR.

“I have enjoyed many hunting moments, fishing hours, and deer and fox hunting days in the State of Wisconsin.  This small gift is in part payment to the State of Wisconsin and for the people of the Lake Ripley area as a token of our thanks to conservation.”

“It is my fervent hope that these wetlands remain wetlands for better conservation and reproduction of fish and wildlife in the Lake Ripley area.  It is hoped these wetlands will be the key to being a sponge and settling bed for all the silt, chemicals and fertilizer from upper farm lands.”

O.H. Perry donated the land to the State, FREE AT NO COST TO THE STATE, but that was a parcel that the legislature forced the DNR to sell, since it was an isolated parcel.

The DNR put the parcel up for sale and the Lake Ripley Management District and other conservation organizations realized it was too valuable to lose.

The locals had to raise funds and The Cambridge Foundation, Pheasants Forever Jefferson County Chapter, Oakland Conservation Club, Fort Atkinson Wisconservation Club, United Community Bank, Badger Bank, DeGidio Tooling, Kutz’s Hillside Rental and local residents raised funds.

Then Ducks Unlimited received $15,000 in North American Wetlands Conservation Act funds to permanently protect the parcel.

In the end, the Lake Ripley Management District paid $41,600 for 40.17 acres of land that was originally given FREE to the State.

This is just one example of events that make no sense to me, and should be taken into account when deciding whom to vote for in November.

Here are a few others:

  • The legislature proposes rules that affect natural resources in this state but the Wisconsin DNR is NOT allowed to testify either for or against the proposed rules. The DNR hires people who  have a formal background in natural resources and they are NOT allowed to present their analysis of whether the proposal is good or bad.  This came into being when Scott Walker and his hand-picked secretary, Cathy Stepp a previous state senator, began to rule the DNR.
  • The 2015-17 State Budget enacted by the legislature and Governor eliminated 16 DNR positions in science services. This was a move to gut the science positions that are supposed to provide guidance, opening more potential for decisions based on political intervention.
  • The Governor and legislature eliminated the Forest Mill Tax that paid for forestry in this state. This small tax amounted to  $27 that homeowners paid each year.  Now in every biennial budget, forestry will have to compete for funding with all other budgetary requests for funding, including education and roads.  This was an election ploy so that the Governor can say “there are no state taxes in your property tax.”  Yes, but taxes fund services and land maintenance.   Everyone who lives in houses built from wood, hikes in forests, and uses paper products benefits from state forests.  The Forest Mill Tax was the $90-million engine that drove Wisconsin’s forest train and used to be  envied by other states.
  • The Governor and legislature took the first steps to eliminate the popular and self-supporting DNR Natural Resources Magazine. The Governor originally proposed to eliminate it, even though it was self-supporting from reader subscriptions.  His appointed DNR Secretary (Cathy Stepp) concurred that the DNR was not in the magazine publishing business.  Eventually legislators heard the public clamor in support of the magazine and they restored the magazine, but only for four issues a year.  It could be the first step to eliminating the magazine, despite the fact that traditionally the DNR mission includes natural resources education.
  • Whether or not you agree that man-made causes are responsible for climate change, scientists agree the climate is changing. Our rainfall occurs in deluges, winters shorter, and summers warmer.  The DNR took any reference to climate change off its website and threw out its educational material on climate change.
  • The DNR went through a major realignment and eliminated state park patrolmen assuring that DNR Conservation wardens could handle the job. As a result, conservation wardens were driving all over the state to patrol parks, leaving local waters unenforced.
  • Fourteen conservation organizations asked the Governor and legislators to raise the cost of six licenses and stamps to help fund the shortage in the Fish and Wildlife Account at the DNR.  The request was ignored.  The organizations include  Ducks Unlimited, Federation of Great Lakes Sport Fishermen, Trout Unlimited, Ruffed Grouse Society, Quality Deer Management Association, Safari Club International Wisconsin Northeast, Badgerland and Southeast BOW Chapters, WI. Chapters of National Wild Turkey Federation and Pheasants Forever, WI. Bear Hunters Association, Conservation Congress, WI. Trappers Association, WI.Waterfowl Associaiton, WI Bowhunters Association and WI Wildlife Federation.  Legislators and the Governor turned a deaf ear to the request, and instead DNR budgets are not adequate.
  • Scott Walker’s proposed 2015-2017 state budget would have halted any borrowing for the Knowles/Nelson Stewardship Program which would have stopped purchases of public land. He also proposed stripping regulatory authority from the Natural Resources Board.  In a future move, it has been reported (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 8, 2018) that the Governor is preparing a proposal in the next state budget to transfer regulations over agricultural pollution from DNR, that is supposed to protect air and water quality, to the farmer-friendly DATCP.
  • Also in Governor Walker’s 2015-17 state budget was a $500,000 “gift” to the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin for hunter recruitment activities.  However, the group did not qualify for non-profit status and the organization’s president was cited for a conservation violation.  The grant was cancelled, and money that could have gone to a valid conservation organization was never allocated.
  • Governor Walker signed Act 100 that limits DNR’s ability to take into account the total water withdrawal from high capacity wells while many people in Kewaunee County have polluted wells and line up at a high school for bottles of drinking water.
  • Legislators rolled back wetland protections (AB 547), with all Republicans in the State Senate in favor and all Democrats against. The bill that was signed by the Governor.  One legislator was quoted as saying, “Let me tell you today, this is the worst bill for sportsmen in a generation.”

The November, 2018 election will be monumental both in Wisconsin and the country.  There is much that will depend on the outcome.

Wisconsin is a shadow of its former self as a national leader in protection of natural resources.  The Department of Natural Resources is muzzled and neutered by the loss of positions in science and gag orders put on employees who are no longer allowed to testify in the capitol on proposed legislation.

DNR employees are not allowed to talk unless they are invited.  Even then, they can Not take a position based on their natural resources education.

We have bills being passed because polluters, CAFO operators, high-capacity well farmers, and Frac Sand operators want to make it easier for them to make money at the expense of the people’s natural resources, and nobody is there to speak up for natural resources from the DNR.

November 6 is an important election.

You need to consider the consequences and vote!

Wouldn’t it be interesting if we were allowed to write our signature on our ballot, and then be able to bring it out and show it to our children or grandchildren when they ask, “What part did you play in voting for people who were supposed to protect the natural resources that you enjoyed and that Wisconsin used to have?”

Democratic nominee for governor Tony Evers launched Conservationists for Tony, a group of bipartisan conservation, environmental and outdoor leaders supporting Evers’ campaign. Photo by Tim Eisele

Note:  To see how different legislators voted on different bills in the 2017-2018 Legislature you can go to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters at: http://conservationvoters.org/vote-tracker/