Wisconsin spring conservation hearings will have an in-person component again after four years online

In-person gatherings will be held April 8 in each county of the state for the Department of Natural Resources Spring Hearings and Wisconsin Conservation Congress County Meetings.

Paul A. Smith
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

After several years of disruption and evolution, the spring hearings process may have found its new normal.

This year the events, formally called the Department of Natural Resources Spring Hearings and Wisconsin Conservation Congress County Meetings, will combine in-person gatherings and online voting.

The in-person meetings will be held April 8 in each county and host elections of local WCC delegates as well as discussion of citizen resolutions and DNR advisory questions.

In-person gatherings were a hallmark of the process for decades before the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 prevented the DNR from organizing face-to-face meetings. Unfortunately the health-related concerns caused changes in the spring hearings through last year.

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But it's not completely back to the old ways. In keeping with a relatively new technological pivot, this year public input will be collected online April 10 to 13.

The WCC dates to 1934 and is composed of local volunteers who serve as delegates in each of the state's 72 counties. It was created by the State Conservation Commission (the predecessor of the Natural Resources Board) to provide Wisconsin citizens with a local means for input and exchange on conservation issues.

In 1972 Gov. Patrick Lucey signed legislation that legally recognized the WCC to ensure that citizens would have a liaison between the Natural Resources Board and the Department of Natural Resources.

As part of the process, five WCC delegates are elected to represent each county. The WCC holds an annual meeting, typically in May, and its executive officers appear regularly at NRB meetings to testify on issues before the board. The chairman is Rob Bohmann of Racine and vice-chair is Joe Weiss of Spooner.

The WCC and DNR first used online means for voting on the spring hearing's questionnaire in 2019. It was recommended by a WCC study committee and started as a trial.

The timing proved fortuitous a year later when the pandemic hit. All public input on proposed rules changes and advisory questions is now taken online.

Not everything in life can be conducted remotely with laptops and smart phones, though. Case in point: WCC elections. The format planned for this year should help fill vacancies in many counties.

That's in keeping with the response received over the last couple years from WCC delegates and the public, said Mary Ellen O’Brien, Dane County WCC delegate and Environmental Committee chair.

"The feedback we got indicated a strong desire to return to the old way of doing things with in-person presentation, discussion, and input on citizen resolutions and DNR recommendations, while also continuing the online input option," O'Brien said in a letter encouraging participation in the spring hearings.

The input also favored the convenience of online voting, O'Brien said.

"Based on this, the WCC is taking a step back for conservation by combining the best of the old and new spring hearing forums," O'Brien said.

So at the April 8 meetings the public will have an opportunity to vote for local WCC delegates, have informal conversations on conservation issues with others, WCC delegates and DNR representatives as well as view presentations and engage in discussion on citizen resolutions and DNR advisory rules.

Then over 72 hours later in the week people will vote on a slate of DNR and WCC advisory questions. The DNR is not proposing any rule changes this year.

As has been true since the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker passed Act 21 in 2011, giving lawmakers more power over the administrative rules process and lengthening the time it takes to make changes, the DNR has offered rules changes only every other year. Mostly that has meant no proposed rules change in even-numbered years.

A rehabilitated bald eagle is held Jan. 6 prior to being released in Prairie du Sac. The Wisconsin Conservation Congress will ask for input on the possibility of banning the use of lead ammunition for all hunting, which would reduce the poisoning of eagles.

Although the 2024 questionnaire hasn't been finalized, drafts provided by the DNR and WCC indicate 49 items are being considered.

Of the five DNR wildlife advisory questions, one will ask if the public supports a rule change to allow white-tailed deer hunters to leave non-edible portions of field-processed deer in the field. This would make it easier for hunters to debone an animal and transport the meat from remote sites. Such a rule and process is common in big game hunting in western states.

Among the seven DNR fisheries advisory questions, one will ask if the agency should expand the inland trout fishing season by a month. The season now starts on the first Saturday in May; the proposal would open it on the first Saturday in April.

Another fisheries advisory question would seek input on allowing trolling with three lines per angler statewide. The practice is currently restricted to one line per angler in all or selected waters in eight counties. All other counties allow three.

According to a draft of its portion of the questionnaire, the WCC is preparing up to 37 advisory questions spanning a wide range of topics.

In one, the organization's Warm Water Committee will ask whether the public favors a 15-inch minimum size limit on walleye and sauger in the Winnebago System. There is currently no size limit.

It will also ask if Wisconsin should implement a 25-fish daily bag limit for white bass. There is currently no limit.

The Environmental Committee will ask whether Wisconsin should phase out lead ammunition for hunting by 2030. Lead has been prohibited for decades for waterfowl hunting but is still allowed for all other forms of hunting.

Wake boats are the topic of several WCC advisory questions. One will ask if the Legislature should create a statute prohibiting the use of wake boat ballast systems on Wisconsin's lakes and rivers. Another will ask whether statutes should be modified to allow wake boats to operate only on state waters larger than 1,500 acres, more than 20 feet deep and at least 700 feet from shore and other lake users.

And the congress will ask if the public supports guidance to prevent powerline companies from mowing transmission line rights-of-way during summer. The change is intended to allow native vegetation to grow and provide habitat for wildlife and insects.

The final questions from the DNR and WCC are expected to be available in the coming weeks. For more, visit dnr.wi.gov.

Call for citizen resolutions

As part of the spring hearings process, citizens are able to submit resolutions for potential rule changes. The deadline is Feb. 26 to submit a resolution for the 2024 meetings. At the close of the submission process, the resolutions will be reviewed by a WCC committee to ensure they meet the criteria for inclusion and will be prepared for the online input. The online input will open April 10 and close April 13.

For questions on the resolution process, visit dnr.wi.gov or contact Terri Roehrig of the WCC's Executive Committee at tlroehrig@yahoo.com or (920) 540-2775.