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Wis. governor's budget would end night wolf hunting

  • Article by: TODD RICHMOND
  • Associated Press
  • March 21, 2013 - 6:32 AM

MADISON, Wis. - Language tucked into Republican Gov. Scott Walker's executive budget would bar hunters from killing wolves at night, eliminating one of the most contentious elements in Wisconsin's wolf hunt regulations.

The provision comes as Wisconsin's Chippewa tribes are fighting in federal court for permission to set up a night deer hunt in northern Wisconsin. State wildlife officials contend night deer hunting is far too dangerous, but the tribes maintain they're entitled to a night hunt since nontribal hunters can now kill wolves after dark. They believe eliminating the night wolf hunt is designed to nullify one of their strongest legal arguments.

"It appears to be an attempt to influence this federal court litigation that's ongoing between the state and tribes," said Charlie Rasmussen, a spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which oversees the Chippewa bands' off-reservation rights. He declined further comment.

A description of the prohibition in the budget states the governor wants to repeal the night wolf hunt "to address public safety concerns." Walker obliquely acknowledged that safety issues and the night deer case played into the decision to include the prohibition in the spending plan, during a question-and-answer session with reporters Tuesday.

But he stressed wolf hunters' daylight success during last year's inaugural hunt was the main driver. Hunters easily reached their kill limit despite taking what Walker's office said was only one wolf at night.

"The biggest reason is, for us, when we first did the wolf hunt, we didn't know what kind of response we'd get out there," the governor said Tuesday. "We got a tremendous response. We had a very active harvest. We don't need to be as wide and broad in terms of the hunt itself."

Republican lawmakers passed a bill last spring establishing a wolf hunt after President Barack Obama's administration removed Great Lakes wolves from the endangered species list. The measure established an annual wolf season from Oct. 15 to the end of February. Hunters can go after wolves after dark and use dogs to track them after the November gun season ends.

Supporters say the hunt is needed to control a burgeoning wolf population that has been preying on farmers' livestock. Animal advocates blasted the measure as inhumane, saying the wolf population is still too fragile to support a hunt and wolves would tear apart hunting dogs. The Chippewa bands were especially opposed to the hunt; they consider the wolf a brother.

The state Department of Natural Resources pressed ahead, establishing a 116-wolf limit for the first season. The DNR closed the season down early in December after hunters killed 117 wolves, one more than their limit.

Stinging from the wolf hunt's passage and Republican efforts to help a Florida-based company open a huge iron mine downstream from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's reservation, the Great Lakes commission and the tribes have been making moves for months that have angered DNR officials, using treaty rights that allow them to hunt and fish across most of northern Wisconsin as they see fit.

In September the Great Lakes commission authorized tribal hunters to kill an elk, a species the DNR has been working to reintroduce for nearly 20 years. Last week the Chippewa bands announced plans to dramatically increase the number of walleye tribal members can spear, forcing the DNR to reduce bag limits across hundreds of northern lakes to compensate.

In November the commission authorized tribal members to hunt deer in the dark across most of northern Wisconsin. The DNR has long banned night deer hunting statewide out of safety concerns, but the tribes pointed to the night wolf hunt, saying DNR officials now believe hunters can use high-caliber weapons safely at night. The DNR convinced U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb to block the deer hunt in December but the case remains active.

DNR spokesman Bill Cosh said in an email Tuesday evening the agency had discussed the safety of hunting wolves at night with the governor's office and agree with the prohibition.

The wolf hunt bill's chief author, Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, called the Chippewa's argument that Walker is trying to strip them of their night deer hunting justification "a conspiracy theory."

Suder still questioned Walker's move, though, and said he wants to talk to the governor about it. The prohibition could lead to ending current night hunts for raccoons, coyotes and foxes, he said. Wolves are so plentiful hunters need every edge they can get, he added.

"I still believe night hunting is one of those tools," Suder said.

Walker's budget also slashes the cost of a wolf hunting license from $100 to $47 for state residents and from $500 to $249 for nonresidents. A Legislative Fiscal Bureau study said Walker's administration believes lower license fees could increase sales.

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