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Kayaking on the Wisconsin River

Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway president Timm Zumm talks with Natural Resources Foundation executive director Ruth Oppedahl last year as she makes her way down the Wisconsin River from its headwaters near the Michigan-Wisconsin border to Prairie du Chien.

My father took me on fishing trips when I was a boy and until recently he took yearly trips with friends. Now, I probably drop a line no more than once every two or three years.

Similarly, hunting and fishing are longtime traditions in my wife’s family, but they aren’t something she pursued once she left the nest. And while our children have shown the occasional interest in fishing, they’ve been less keen on shooting living creatures for sport or for food.

As the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources knows, my family’s experience is becoming the norm. The slow wane of the state’s “sporting heritage” doesn’t have to be a bad thing, though, if the state’s ruling Republican lawmakers can see that there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the outdoors — and pay for them.

The decline in deer hunting has been well documented, but there have also been declines in the number of people buying some bear, small game and turkey hunting and archery and trapping licenses, according to DNR figures.

While the number of standard resident fishing licenses was basically unchanged from 2006 to 2015, federal data show there were some years in the 1980s when more total resident licenses and other fishing authorizations were issued in Wisconsin — 1.38 million in 1984, for example — than in 2015, when 1.34 million were issued. This over a period of time when the state’s population increased 22 percent.

As a result, despite scaling back on staffing and services, the DNR has not been able to erase a multimillion-dollar gap between what it collects in licensing fees from hunters and anglers and what it’s authorized to spend on fish and wildlife services such as fish-stocking, habitat management and warden patrols, according to a report the agency issued last week.

In addition to the decline in hunting, the DNR blames license revenues that haven’t kept up with inflation and agency costs that have, and its first suggestion is to raise hunting and fishing license fees.

Among its secondary suggestions are to register canoes and other non-motorized boats and to charge everybody who enters a state natural, fishery or wildlife area — even if they aren’t there to hunt or fish. Many of these 600 properties are good for lots of other things, too, such as bird-watching or hiking.

There’s some reason to believe these newer and less-lethal forms of outdoor recreation are on the rise, although hard data can be hard to come by.

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Kris Freundlich of the Mad City Paddlers — for paddle sports enthusiasts — told me “our club has shown a steady rate of increase in memberships, and it is my impression that paddle sports are on an upswing in participation.” The club had 248 members in 2009 and 359 last year, she said.

Karen Etter Hale, chairwoman of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative, said that bird enthusiasts “are participating in field trips of all kinds.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated there were about 46 million bird-watchers in the United States in 2001 and about 47 million in 2011. Bird-sightings entered into crowd-sourced tool called eBird, co-launched by the National Audubon Society, have increased by more than 300 percent over the last five years.

Dan York of the UW-Madison Hoofer Outing Club, which organizes a range of outdoor excursions, said that while the number of group trips and activities has remained about the same in recent years, “lately we’re seeing a much greater interest in backpacking and mountain biking” and “great enthusiasm for whitewater and sea kayaking.”

The chairman of the Senate Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry Committee, Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany, said he would be “skeptical” of increasing fees for hunting, fishing and trapping, and raised questions about whether the DNR was managing its wildlife funds as well as it could. Without having studied the DNR’s report, he said he would give “full consideration” to implementing fees for other outdoor recreation.

In the current state budget, Republicans cut tax support for state parks in favor of increasing camping and other park fees. For good or for ill, the state GOP prefers the fee-for-service model over using general tax revenues to pay for the state’s outdoor amenities or other “common goods.”

In the absence of a hunting and fishing rebound, a broader array of fees for a growing array of outdoors activities could satisfy this particular GOP inclination.

After all, there’s no sign that people don’t love the Wisconsin outdoors just as much as they always have. And there’s nothing wrong if what they want to do in them is changing.

Capital W: Plug in to Wisconsin politics

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Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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