Smith: Here's what's going on as Wisconsin legislators turn their eyes toward conservation issues

By Paul Smith, Journal Sentinel

MADISON - In the predictable rhythm of the Wisconsin Legislature, the period of high activity and high stakes regarding the biennial state budget ended earlier this summer.

A lull followed.

But now, after Labor Day, state senators and representatives are increasingly turning their attention to new pieces of legislation.

Tuesday typified the heightened activity at the Capitol, including the introduction of four bills directly related to the conservation community.

If you, like me, count yourself a member of that interest group, you ought to know something about these proposals.

The first one was kicked off at a 9:30 a.m. meeting by Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point). Shankland is leading a push to add funding to chronic wasting disease management in the state.

The 2019-20 state budget was a disappointment to me and many others for its failure to address CWD in any new and meaningful way. It didn't, for example, even provide any additional help with testing or carcass disposal.

Shankland debuted three proposals called “Healthy Herd, Healthy Hunt.”

She was joined by George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, and Tom Hauge of Wisconsin's CWD Action Initiative.

Shankland said she'd been working for months in collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources to determine what the Legislature can do "immediately to support the agency's CWD management efforts."

The package includes bills that would provide funding for CWD research and management, funding for CWD testing kiosks and funding for carcass disposal sites and dumpsters.

The three proposals – known as LRB 0293, LRB 3300 and LRB 4071 until they are given bill numbers later this month – would provide about $4.2 million in additional funding to the DNR over the next two years for CWD management and research.

A host of Democratic co-sponsors have joined Shankland in support of the measures, including Reps. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo), Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Staush Gruszynski (D-Green Bay), Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield), Nick Milroy (D-South Range) and Don Vruwink (D-Milton) and Sens. Janet Bewley (D-Mason), Janis Ringhand (D-Evansville), Patty Schachtner (D-Somerset) and Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire). 

Shankland said she is hopeful Republican members of the Legislature will also sign-on in support of the bills.

The CWD proposals join a measure introduced July 23 by Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) that would allocate $205,200 annually from the DNR's Conservation Fund for deer carcass dumpsters. That proposal (Senate Bill 325 and Assembly Bill 384) has yet to have a hearing.

Meyer of the WWF said his group supported the "Healthy Herd, Healthy Hunt" package as well as the dumpster bill offered by Kurtz and Marklein.

"Chronic wasting disease isn't a partisan issue," Meyer said. "I'm hopeful these all will move forward and we can have some positive advances on CWD in the near future."

The second item introduced Tuesday had to do with the state waterfowl stamp.

Kyle Rorah, a regional representative of Ducks Unlimited, led a presentation of the stamp's history and current status.

He was joined by Nels Swenson and Brian Glenzinski, both of DU, and Bruce Ross of the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association.

Proceeds from sales of the stamp are used to benefit wetlands and associated wildlife. Use of the funds is dictated by state statute; two-thirds are spent in Wisconsin and one-third assist with habitat projects in Canada.

The stamp, required of duck and goose hunters in Wisconsin, and has been fixed at $7 since 1997. Over time it has lost purchasing power and qualified projects have gone unfunded. In the current cycle, applications were received for $2 million in Wisconsin projects, and only about $650,000 were accepted.

For years, Wisconsin waterfowl hunters have shown overwhelming support for a price increase. Ross said 82% of WWA members supported raising the stamp price to $12.

That's exactly what Rep. Ken Skowronski (R-Franklin) and  Sen. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point) aim to do.

"I'm a hawk when it comes to spending the people's money," Skowronski said. "This is a case when a user group is asking to pay more. I think it's well justified."

In addition to the groups who spoke at Tuesday's meeting, the measure has the support of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, Green Bay Duck Hunters and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.

The legislators are looking for co-sponsors on the waterfowl stamp proposal. It, too, is scheduled to get a bill number in the coming days.

Here's hoping both the CWD and waterfowl bills will receive bipartisan support and become law as soon as practicable.