As session nears end, many sportsmen-backed bills dead in Legislature

By: Paul Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As the 2019-20 Wisconsin legislative session nears it end, Republican leadership has allowed a bevy of sportsmen-backed bills to die.

Included in the list are all measures that sought to curb the spread of chronic wasting disease, including one authored by Republicans.

Also dead is a widely-supported proposal to increase the price of the state waterfowl stamp. Introduced Oct. 14, Assembly Bill 543 and its companion Senate Bill 611 did not receive a hearing in either chamber.

Another bipartisan bill strongly backed by sportsmen - AB924 and SB843 - also went nowhere. It intended to restore the right for hunters, anglers, trappers and other pedestrians to cross railroad tracks to access public land and water.

Additional bills that failed to get a hearing included one to require carcass tags for deer hunting and a free fishing weekend for military veterans.

The two committees that decide the fate of most hunting and fishing and trapping measures are the Senate Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry chaired by Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) and the Assembly Committee on Sporting Heritage chaired by Rep. Rob Stafsholt (R-New Richmond).

Each committee has a majority of Republican members.

Overall, the 2019-20 Wisconsin Legislature will go down as having one of the lowest levels of activity on sportsmen's issues in decades, said Ralph Fritsch of Townsend, a member of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress and Wisconsin Wildlife Federation for more than 30 years. 

The sporting committees did pass a handful of measures, including allowing cocked, unloaded crossbows to be transported on certain vehicles, reduced cost fishing licenses for anglers ages 16 or 17 or older than 65, and modifications to the Governor's bear tag and a bear baiting rule.

But the list of items blocked by the committees is longer and arguably far more consequential to conservation.

Under Republican leadership, the Wisconsin Legislature has repeatedly failed to advance bills designed to help in the fight against CWD, the fatal deer disease spreading in much of the state.

This session four CWD-related bills were introduced. A proposal (SB325 and AB348) to help pay for deer carcass dumpsters, co-authored by Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc), received a hearing in the Senate but was never voted on.

Three measures (AB533, AB534 and AB535) intended to modestly increase funding for CWD research and management failed to get a hearing in Stafsholt's committee. The bills were authored by Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point).

Representatives from Ducks Unlimited, Safari Club International, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the WWF said work is already underway to make several of the failed initiatives priorities in the next legislative session.

The Assembly is effectively done for the year and the Senate has one more floor day scheduled, according to aides in Madison. 

Most Legislators will spend the rest of the year campaigning for the November elections.

Cole confirmed as DNR Secretary: The Wisconsin Senate voted unanimously Feb.19 to confirm Preston Cole as Secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.

Cole had served as secretary-designee since December 2018 when he was appointed by Gov. Tony Evers.

The Senate’s Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee held a public hearing March 7, 2019, on Cole’s appointment. Twenty-two people registered in support of Cole and nobody registered against.

Committee chairman Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) delayed a vote on Cole until Oct. 1; all five committee members voted in favor of confirmation.

The Senate further held off the confirmation until Feb. 19. Historically most cabinet appointees were approved by the Senate within weeks or a few months of a new administration taking office.

Cole holds a bachelor of science degree in forest management from the University of Missouri and has had a variety of work experience as a forester and a manager, including from 1991 to 2018 with the City of Milwaukee. He also served on the Natural Resources Board from 2007-18, including as its chairman.

Elk tag applications: The DNR is accepting applications from aspiring elk hunters March 1 to May 31 for the 2020 Wisconsin elk hunt.

Th 2020 season will be the third regulated elk hunt in state history. 

The number of tags to be issued will be determined later this year. The season dates are Oct. 17-Nov. 15 and Dec. 10-18. Only Wisconsin residents are eligible to receive an elk tag.

To apply for an elk tag, access the DNR's Go Wild! system or visit a license agent. The application fee is $10. Hunters who draw a tag will be notified in early June.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will also once again hold a raffle for one tag; it costs $10 per ticket. 

For each application received by the DNR, $7 is earmarked for elk management and research in Wisconsin.