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Legal deer hunters walk a two-track in a Clark County forest near Fairchild.

Wisconsin’s largest hunting and fishing group on Tuesday said state officials have gone soft on poaching and other conservation law enforcement.

An official with the state Department of Natural Resources said the assignment of wardens to additional duties recruiting people as hunters has taken away from time for enforcement.

Citing statistics showing the DNR has issued fewer conservation violations each year from 2009 through 2013, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation called on the agency and elected officials to get tougher.

Citations for hunting out of season, using illegal deer hunting methods, altering wildlife habitat, unlicensed fishing and drunken boating fell in proportions ranging from 20 percent to 85 percent in 2011-2013 compared to 2003-2010, the federation said in a statement.

The DNR issued between 18,000 and 19,500 citations annually from 2003 to 2009, but the number plummeted to 16,337 in 2010, the last year of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s eight years in office.

The total dropped more in each of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s first three years in office, hitting 12,393 in 2013.

“This is a substantial decline in conservation enforcement,” federation executive director George Meyer said. “It’s a combination of things, including less emphasis in enforcement of conservation laws, reduced funding for conservation warden patrols and increased vacancies in warden positions.”

For the last four or five years, wardens have spent more time on programs aimed at recruiting and retaining hunters, DNR chief conservation warden Todd Schaller said.

“The warden service has taken on a big initiative to promote hunting and shooting, and that does take some time away from enforcement,” Schaller said.

Republicans who gained control of state government in 2011 have pushed for measures to counter flagging interest in hunting.

Participation rates for adult males dropped 16 percent between 2000 and 2009, with a similar decrease for juveniles.

Schaller said the agency’s law enforcement bureau currently has nine vacancies among 224 field staff positions. Vacancy rates are a snapshot of a certain day each year. For the last two years the rates have been the lowest since 2010.

Poaching hotspots

Meyer said DNR employees have told him they respond to complaints about illegal activity, but short staffing means they don’t have sufficient time to patrol poaching hotspots, where they can catch lawbreakers in the act, or lakes and streams, to check for licenses, Meyer said.

“You can’t get a lot of game violations sitting at your computer,” Meyer said. “The wardens aren’t being given the tools and support to do their job.”

Fees stayed the same

The DNR could generate more revenue to hire wardens, but it hasn’t increased hunting or fishing license fees for eight years, Meyer said.

Schaller said the law enforcement bureau budget has not grown in recent years aside from some increased federal grant revenue.

He said information wasn’t immediately available showing changes in the hours wardens work on various duties.

Varying numbers of retirements add challenges to the task of keeping warden positions filled because of the months of lead time needed to find and train replacements, Schaller said.

Any law enforcement effort needs to include enforcement, education and community involvement, he said. “Evaluating a program based only on citations is not an accurate reflection,” Schaller said.

State wildlife federation president John Wagner said the fall-off in law enforcement was significant.

“This major decline in the enforcement of laws passed by the Legislature to protect people and wildlife is a great concern to our organization and the average hunter, angler and trapper,” Wagner said in a statement.

The federation says it represents 198 hunting, fishing, trapping and forestry-related groups.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.