Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of Keith Warnke and his daughters. Courtesy of Keith Warnke

Keith Warnke values time spent outdoors with his two young daughters.
Photo courtesy of Keith Warnke

October 2011

Let's talk hunting

Hunters and nonhunters must put differences aside for conservation.

Kathryn A. Kahler

If conservation is important to you and you enjoy Wisconsin's natural resources, thank the hunters and anglers you know. They are major contributors to conservation in our state.

Wisconsin hunters – whose license fees and equipment purchases fund a good chunk of wildlife conservation – have declined in number by 50,000 since the year 2000 and will continue to drop over the next 20 years.

In 1991, 17 percent of Wisconsin residents hunted. By 2001 that proportion had dropped to 15 percent. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service will report on the latest survey findings early next year, but odds are the proportion of us who hunt will have declined again.

Research conducted by the Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin Applied Population Laboratory predicts that resident male gun deer hunter numbers will fall from 550,000 in 2010 to 400,000 in 2030, a decline of more than 25 percent. This translates to a loss of over $4 million in revenue to the state's fish and wildlife fund each year, when you adjust for future license increases. That account pays for game management and conservation law enforcement as well as ecosystem restoration and management.

What's behind that decline and how to deal with it have been debated across the country for a couple of decades. But the bottom line is hunters and anglers are the primary funders and supporters of the "North American Wildlife Conservation Model," begun in the early 1900s by leaders such as Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold and others. The primary principles that evolved were wildlife "belongs" to the public, and the scientific management of game species is funded by users, specifically hunters and anglers. These principles have not only benefitted game species, but have helped bring non-game species like American bison and bald eagles back from the brink of extinction. Although the model has evolved over the years, the basic funding source remains unchanged.

What does the future hold?

"We are on the precipice of change in Wisconsin when it comes to the traditional role of hunting in the state's conservation and wildlife management efforts," says Keith Warnke, hunting and shooting sports coordinator with DNR's Bureau of Law Enforcement. "Our tremendous tradition and connection to this sacred activity is slipping. There is a disconnect between some environmentalists and some hunters and anglers, and how we bridge that divide depends on both sides putting differences aside, opening a dialogue and working together to solve it."

Warnke considers himself an "ecoredneck," a term first defined by author Steve Chapple as someone who isn't afraid to pursue and harvest wildlife, but who has a love and respect for wildlife and the ecosystem of which it's a part.

Warnke took a step to open the dialogue at a brownbag lecture on the UW Madison campus last March, called "Shifting paradigms in hunting and conservation: How will Wisconsin respond?" His talk centered on three facts – backed by survey research – that hunters and citizens in Wisconsin share a lot of values related to environmental conservation and hunting, Wisconsinites place great value on conservation in the Badger State and the main divide is one of communication and connection.

"There are so many great reasons that we need hunting," Warnke says. "It's the time spent bonding with family and friends. It's the connection you feel with nature when you're out harvesting your meal. It's the ability and skills you develop. You're getting outside, breathing fresh air. But conservation costs money. We're using a funding mechanism developed a century ago to provide conservation and ensure that the public has the opportunity to not only hunt and fish, but hike or watch wildlife. We have strong reasons to hunt and we can have strong, robust funding mechanisms that involve more than hunters."

Warnke's talk provoked many questions from his audience. We invite you, as a valued subscriber and conservationist, to read them and Warnke's answers, take them to heart, and let us know what you think. Write us a letter or email and we'll print a representative selection of letters in an upcoming issue.

Kathryn A. Kahler is a staff writer for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

Give us your thoughts

Keep your thoughts concise and on point. Include your name and the city where you live; we won't print anonymous comments! Try to keep your letter to 250 words. Put a face with your thoughts and include a photo of yourself if you'd like.

  • Address letters to "Editor – Let's Talk Hunting," Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707.
  • Send an email to dnrmagazine@wisconsin.gov, with "Let's Talk Hunting" in the subject line.
Wisconsin's hunting heritage Q & A

Here's a sampling of some of the questions on other people's minds. Use them – and Warnke's answers – to inspire your thoughts and help start a dialogue among conservation leaders, and the hunting and nonhunting communities.

Q. How do we reconcile the fact that there is a perception that most hunters have not yet embraced Aldo Leopold's views of the importance of developing a land ethic?

A. That's a valid observation but the converse is also true and a lot of hunters are "eco-rednecks" and have embraced the land ethic. We need to open the dialogue and bridge the divide so we're all working together and talking about this. We need to go back to our roots and talk about the fact that in Wisconsin and North America, conservation began with hunters. On a positive note, I also think that divide isn't really as big as it appears. We just need to do a better job of communicating the things we have in common.

Q. Doesn't it seem like it's the hunting press that validates that perception, especially among nonhunters?

A. Yes! We're constantly bombarded by images that portray hunters in a negative light, by our own press. They are trying to sell something. So we need to start buying products – like magazines – and joining organizations that promote the kind of land ethic that Leopold wrote about.

Q. Most of the stories we read are about "quality deer management" that push toward trophy hunting. They really don't do service to the concept of hunters as conservationists, do they?

A. Right, and I think that's a big disconnect. We know from surveys that what motivates hunters are things like time outdoors, being close to nature, and spending time with friends and family. There's nothing wrong with enjoying harvesting a big buck now and then, but those other motivations are all more important than trophy hunting. But since those magazines sell advertising for products that show big bucks, it is an economic driver for them, and that's what our image becomes. We as hunters can change that image by telling them that we like different kinds of hunting articles, and journalism in the Gordon MacQuarrie style of writing. But we have to take the initiative to build a profile and project ourselves as we truly are: hunter conservationists.

Q. When you talk about huntable species, you're talking about one-fifth of the vertebrate species in the state, and the DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources has to address those endangered and threatened species. I would like you to speculate on an excise tax on non-consumptive users and what role that might play in the future.

A. Another great question. Some of the funding for the Bureau of Endangered Resources does come from hunters and anglers. I personally think that beyond the excise tax question, hunters need to step up to the plate and start thinking more holistically about the environment and ecosystems in Wisconsin. When it comes to an excise tax on non-consuming equipment – like binoculars, hiking boots or waterproof pants – it's a great idea but so far it hasn't worked. I think what it takes for that idea to take hold is for the nonhunting public to say "we need to start paying for conservation" and pushing it up the line to the bureaucrats and politicians. In the past it's been more of a top-down scheme and it hasn't been effective.

Q. Have you ever considered a "nonhunting hunting" license?

A. Yes, it's been considered but never implemented. I still think there's real value in that. It could be a badge or something you could display in your window that says "I'm a proud supporter of conservation." But such an initiative would have to come from the public as a grass-roots effort. The reality is you can support conservation now by purchasing a hunting or fishing license and know that 100 percent of your money will go to scientifically managed conservation.

Q. In terms of recruiting hunters, why can't we rethink how we teach hunter education to emphasize more environmental education, and to educate people to be eco-hunters?

A. There are definitely niches where we can make in-roads and one is on college campuses. Karl Malcolm in the UW-Madison Department of Forestry and Wildlife Ecology is hosting a Learn to Hunt event on campus based on the concept of sustainable foods and the "slow food" movement. There's a lot of interest in sustainability and living locally in today's college generation. Hopefully people will embrace that, make it their own and spread it around. There will always be a continuum of hunters, from trophy hunters to the sustainable-use, part-time hunter, but if we can refocus some of our efforts on educating the public and building a more sustainable population of hunter conservationists with solid connections to environmental groups and organizations, there's no way we'll lose. But we need to make that shift and continue doing things like we're doing today.

How to get involved

Think about your kids' teachers, your hair stylist, grocery store clerk, doctor or neighbor. Do any of them hunt? Are any of them interested in hunting? Have you asked them? Well, you can ask, and you can invite them to participate in a Learn to Hunt event you sponsor. Make it a reality and help pass along a great Wisconsin tradition. The Department of Natural Resources will even reimburse you for your help.

It's a great opportunity to get your friends, your rod and gun club or your conservation club focused on a sense of purpose and challenge – introducing the next generation of hunters.

What is Learn to Hunt? It's an educational program to help beginning hunters experience a high quality, first-time hunt with the aid of experienced hunting mentors. The volunteer program is led by skilled hunters with the assistance of local DNR wildlife biologists and conservation wardens. These events can take place outside of the normal hunting season and the participants are not required to have a hunting license.

All participants receive classroom and field instruction before they experience an actual hunt. Anyone 10 years old or older with less than two years of hunting experience is eligible to participate and we recommend clubs focus on having families attend and participate. Think about recruiting participants from your community. Reach beyond the local hunter education class to other adult friends and their children.

Hunting offers an opportunity to connect with nature, spend quality time with family and friends, and the chance to bring home high quality food. Our challenge is to introduce hunting to at least 2,000 new people this year. In the challenge there is also opportunity – all those baby boomers also represent an army of qualified mentors for the next decade. Wisconsin citizens recognize the importance of hunters to conservation in our state and they strongly support us. It's up to us as hunters – as well as business organizations, youth groups, churches and neighborhood organizations – to make sure that great tradition continues.

You can design your own unique Learn to Hunt. I believe that the way to be most successful is to focus on the family fun surrounding hunting. Invite the whole family out to the field and share our tradition and knowledge with them. A Learn to Hunt event that highlights building the complete family support network for hunting has a good chance to start a long-lasting tradition.

The processes and application forms sponsors need to organize a Learn to Hunt event are available at Hunting Events Mix Instruction and Hunting.

It's not too late to host a Learn to Hunt pheasant or deer event yet this fall and it's not too early to begin planning for next spring's Learn to Hunt turkey event. Contact Keith Warnke (P.O. Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707) with any questions.

– Keith Warnke