Talk of Wisconsin’s rich deer-hunting tradition being overhauled by a Texas wildlife biologist hired by the Walker administration to recommend changes to the management of the state’s deer population has led to mounting fear that Wisconsin’s public hunting land will go the way of Texas.
If that scenario played out, public land would be snatched up by private owners, preventing the state’s roughly 600,000 deer hunters from roaming free of charge to hunt.
Instead, hunting would flourish on private land, where people would be charged fees to hunt. Those fees can run into the thousands of dollars in Texas depending on the location and the package.
That would price out many of the state’s 600,000 hunters, argued six Democratic members of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee Thursday at a Capitol press conference.
“It’s a pay-to-play deal,” says Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison. “The more hunters hear about this, the more they are going to be outraged.”
The Democratic members of the committee called on Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn, and Rep. Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, to hold a joint hearing of the Legislature's natural resources committees immediately.
But so far, despite a preliminary report from James Kroll, the state's deer trustee, there is no hard evidence that an effort is underway by the state to privatize public hunting land.
Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, says a hearing is needed to allow Kroll, who is under a $125,000 contract with the state Department of Administration, to explain the preliminary results of his findings that were released in March as well as to detail what his recommendations will be when his report on how to manage the state’s deer population comes out. It is due by June 30.
“The public deserves a hearing to let Kroll explain his findings and to understand what his recommendations point toward,” Clark says.
That is particularly necessary, he adds, given the stark difference between how hunting has evolved in Texas and in Wisconsin.
But Jocelyn Webster, a Department of Administration spokeswoman, stressed that nowhere in the preliminary report did Kroll suggest privatizing public lands.
“Much of the talk jumps the gun,” Webster says. “It is a lot of fuss about a lot of unsubstantiated and untrue conjecture. It’s just rumors.”
But the Democrats say a hearing also is necessary to give Kroll a chance to explain some of his comments in a 2002 story in Texas Monthly that have lit up the blogosphere over the past week.
“I cannot undo the slander, but I can be clear,” Kroll says on his website. “If you read my words carefully, you should understand where I stand. I stand with the sportsmen/women of Wisconsin. I stand with the rural lifestyle. I stand with the Native American rights. I stand with hunting-fishing recreation, and I stand with the white-tailed deer. Now, I hope that is clear.”
Kroll says politics is a factor.
“Recently, I have heard about things being said in blogs, presumably to aid in successfully removing Gov. Walker" from office, Kroll says on his website. “Since I am not politically motivated, did not vote for Gov. Walker, will not be able to in the up-coming election, and am neither a Democrat or a Republican, I am concerned and saddened by things being said about me and my positions and values related to white-tailed deer.”
He also says the white-tailed deer “is my life, second only to my family and my God!”
It is Kroll’s comments from 2002 that have stirred up the most speculation among hunters and others that Kroll’s final recommendations will not favor keeping Wisconsin’s public land open to hunters.
Clark says one-third of Wisconsin land is public. In contrast, 2 percent of the land in Texas is public.
“The culture (in Texas) is very different from Wisconsin,” says Rep. Chris Danou, D-Trempealeau. “It may work in Texas, but it is not something I would like to see imported to Wisconsin.”
Kroll has never advocated for turning his state’s public hunting land into private hunting land, the Democrats conceded at the press conference. Instead, a significant part of his research focuses on antler genetics, according to his website.
This fact got him dubbed the “deer breeder” in the 2002 article. He addresses the phrase on his website, saying he has published “significant findings on the subject (of antler genetics)” and the only deer sold from the 200-acre property he owns with his wife are sold to fund their research.
Besides raising concerns among some Assembly Democrats, Kroll’s preliminary report also has drawn criticism from Tim Van Deelen, a UW-Madison associate professor of forest and wildlife ecology.
Chief among Van Deelen’s concerns was the lack of a recommendation for how the state should handle its ongoing problem with deadly chronic wasting disease. Van Deelen also said Kroll’s report lacked scientific data and analysis.
Kroll, who refers to himself as "Dr. Deer" but has earned the nickname the "deer czar" from critics, will deliver his report to the governor’s office.
Whether that is Gov. Scott Walker or Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett depends on who wins Tuesday’s recall election.