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Deer, elk and bear hunters in Wisconsin no longer need to wear back tags.

Deer hunters in Wisconsin no longer need to wear identifying tags on their backs under a law signed this month by Gov. Scott Walker.

Backtags gave conservation wardens and police officers a fast way to determine if a hunter was properly licensed, and an easy method for identifying those who trespass or break other laws, but lawmakers said they were ineffective, troublesome and cost money.

“I believe the vast majority of Wisconsin hunters are ethical, and requiring a backtag is not going to change their ethics,” said the law’s lead author, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, a Republican from Oconomowoc who likes to hunt. “Those who go into the woods to break the law are going to find a way to do it, backtags or not.”

Wisconsin was one of only two states requiring backtags. Kleefisch said the hunters group Safari Club International asked for the law. He said he wasn’t sure if the National Rifle Association joined Safari Club in asking him to introduce the bill. Those groups, another firearms group and an organization for bear hunters also registered in favor of the legislation, which removes the only backtag requirements for Wisconsin hunters.

Kleefisch said he worked with the state Department of Natural Resources in drafting the law.

But in its written testimony to two Legislative committees, the DNR advised lawmakers that backtags appeared to deter people from hunting without licenses, and they were occasionally a factor in catching violators.

Conservation wardens used binoculars to read the tags of hunters from a distance allowing them to check for compliance more quickly than if they needed to approach and speak with each hunter individually.

With the new law, it will take more time to check the same number of hunters for proper licensing, and that could have a cost for hunters, too, the agency said in its testimony.

“In-person license checks may cause hunters to search for their licenses in their bags or pockets, which may include digging through several layers of clothing during cold winter hunts. From the hunter’s perspective, this may increase the duration and unpleasantness of in-person license checks.”

But the tags caused other inconveniences, said Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

Hunters usually pinned tags in place between layers of clear plastic that could make noise when blown by the wind, Moulton said.

The law required tags to be worn on the outermost garment, so hunters would need to pin and unpin them from backpacks, vests and jackets, as they changed gear, he said.

“You had to keep punching holes in your clothes and it was just a nuisance,” said Moulton. He said he was happy to offer the companion to Kleefisch’s bill because he had heard complaints about tags from customers of a store he owns that sells archery equipment and other sporting goods.

But Tom Thoreson, a retired DNR deputy chief warden, said he caught hunters trespassing who hid their licences to make it more difficult to identify them.

And in 2004, backtags helped quickly identify a man who shot six hunters to death in Sawyer County before he could hurt anyone else, Thoreson said. Chai Soua Vang of St. Paul, Minnesota, fatally shot six white hunters after being found trespassing on land in Sawyer County. He testified the victims shouted racial epithets at him and one opened fire first, but two wounded survivors said Vang shot first.


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.