With recent months having brought everything from the state's first wolf hunt to a noisy debate over trapping and hunting in state parks, non-hunters and animal activists in Wisconsin are arguing that powerful hunting groups are wielding too much influence with the state Legislature and the Department of Natural Resources.
Now, some of those activists are hoping to crash the party of one of state's most influential pro-hunting groups — the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.
Melissa Smith, a Madison resident who has helped lead opposition to wolf hunting in the state, has declared herself a candidate for the Conservation Congress, a popular statewide organization that advises the state Department of Natural Resources on outdoor sporting issues.
Though she said she is not opposed to sustenance hunting, Smith said she is concerned that the voices of non-hunters are not being heard or heeded on issues such as the wolf hunt and the expansion of hunting and trapping in state parks. Both issues are the subject of questions that will be asked at Conservation Congress meetings to be held simultaneously Monday night in every county.
"I'm not an anti-hunter," Smith said. "But it just seems that a lot of the people involved with the Congress have become so extreme. Wolf hunting with dogs? And hunting and trapping in state parks? That's why I'm running. I don't know what else to do."
Smith plans to run as a delegate at the Dane County meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. Monday at Sun Prairie High School.
The Conservation Congress was created by the state Legislature to advise the DNR on hunting, fishing and trapping as well as broader conservation issues. Every spring, the group holds meetings on the same night statewide to elect delegates and to vote on a long list of issues. Anyone can attend and cast votes.
This year, in addition to dozens of questions about obscure changes in fishing and hunting rules, the questionnaire includes queries about whether dogs should be used to hunt wolves, whether hunting and trapping in state parks should be expanded, and whether a number of hunting seasons — such as those for bobcats and coyotes — should be extended.
Rob Bohmann, chairman of the organization, said that because of the prominence of several hunting issues in the past year he expects a number of animals rights activists and their supporters to attend meetings and put candidates up for election, especially in Dane and Milwaukee counties.
Delegates are important because they serve on committees and help shape and present the organization's agenda.
Smith's candidacy has caught the interest of some groups, such as the Dane County Humane Society, that have not traditionally been involved with the Conservation Congress proceedings.
Others also say they are concerned about the views of non-hunters getting drowned out by outspoken hunting groups such as the Conservation Congress or the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, which helped push the wolf hunting season through the state Legislature.
Few people have been more vocal — and more of a lightning rod — on the issue than Patricia Randolph, an animal rights activist who became the first staunch hunting opponent to be elected as a Conservation Congress delegate when she won a position in Dane County in 1999. She served through 2001 and her term was marked by controversy, including a dustup in which she was warned by Conservation Congress leaders that she would be censured or removed if she spoke against hunting.
Randolph maintains that few non-hunters know about the Conservation Congress and the power the organization wields on hunting issues with both the DNR and the state Legislature. The problem, she said, is that the views of the organization are representative not of the general public but of hunters, who make up a minority of the population. As a result, Randolph said, hunting — including seasons on everything from wolves to mourning doves and proposed seasons on sandhill cranes and even gulls — seems to be expanding even in the face of what she says is opposition from the general public on issues such as wolf hunting or trapping in parks.
"We are totally disenfranchised," Randolph said.
Smith said she is emphasizing her opposition to wolf hunting with dogs and the expansion of hunting and trapping in state parks. But she said she also intends to push the congress to take stronger stands on conservation issues such as the protection of wetlands.
"The Conservation Congress has changed over the years," Smith said. "There are very few questions at the meeting about conservation. It just seems to have evolved over the years to become a hunters' club."
Bohmann, however, said that the strong push by the hunting community in recent years to add more seasons and encourage more hunters is necessary because as the number of hunters drops, they lose their power to influence decision-makers.
"If we don't fight for what we have, we'll lose it," Bohmann said. "I think we're more active now."
Bill Cosh, a spokesman for the DNR, said the agency does pay close attention to the views of hunters and those who participate in other outdoor sports such as trapping and fishing.
"They are not only part of our culture," he said, "but they are also methods of responsibly managing our wildlife populations."
But Cosh also said the DNR promotes many non-hunting activities such as camping, hiking, biking, wildlife observation, and skiing.
Bohmann said he welcomes those with diverse viewpoints to attend the Conservation Congress meetings and to run for the delegate positions. But he said that there has to be a willingness to compromise and he expects everyone on both sides of the issues to respect opposing views.
"Everybody has a right to run for the congress," Bohmann said. "What they need to understand is it cannot be all one way or another. You have to work together. And let's be respectful. That's all I ask for. You don't have to agree with someone but let's be respectful."