Iowa County Conservation Warden David Youngquist assists novice hunters through a Learn to Hunter turkey program.
The face of Wisconsin hunters
Courting a land ethic.
A recent article and sidebar in Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine tripped the trigger of several of the state's big game, waterfowl, upland game bird and small game hunters. The informative article by staff writer Kathryn Kahler reported on a brown bag lecture at UW-Madison entitled "Shifting paradigms in hunting and conservation: How will Wisconsin respond?" presented by Keith Warnke, hunting and shooting sports coordinator with the Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Law Enforcement.
The first entry of the Question and Answer sidebar caught the attention of several readers who consider themselves not only hunters but protectors of the land that they either own or hunt. The question is as follows:
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," Warnke responded, "but the converse is also true, and a lot of hunters are 'eco-rednecks' and have embraced the land ethic."
While use of the term "eco-redneck" is unfortunate, Warnke is correct regarding the notion that hunters are fully absorbed in not only practicing a land ethic, but passing it on to future generations. This article will attempt to capsulize the attitudes and contributions that Wisconsin's hunters make to the conservation of our natural resources.
First, however, we must attempt to define a land ethic. Leopold discusses at some length the relationship between land and people. He is particularly interested in reconciling the thrust of economic development with the need to respect what he refers to as a "biotic pyramid."
"Plants absorb energy from the sun," Leopold writes. "This energy flows through a circuit called the biota, which may be represented by a pyramid consisting of layers.
"The bottom layer is the soil. A plant layer rests on the soil, an insect layer on the plants, a bird and rodent layer on the insects, and so on up through various animal groups to the apex layer, which consists of the larger carnivores. Each successive layer depends on those below it for food," Leopold maintains.
Al Shook of Oconomowoc is a life-long hunter, former Air Force pilot and now a supervising inspector for the City of Waukesha. Having absorbed Leopold's message in his approach to land management, he takes it a step further by suggesting that Leopold is not the only source of an understanding of what constitutes a land ethic. "It's not a fair question," he asserts.
He submits that many hunters who have never read Leopold's reflections have learned respect for the land from family members or other mentors. "I was taught by my dad and the farmer I worked for to look around and remember what lived where, before I ever read Leopold's work."
Shook goes on to say a land ethic is different for almost everyone. "My connection to the land I hunt is complete," he explains. "I can close my eyes right now and see the land in great detail – downed trees, slopes, holes."
Mark Noll of Alma in Buffalo County views his responsibility for the land through the eyes of four generations of family members who have owned the property. "We have very deep bonds with our land," Noll says. "We truly believe that if you take care of your land, your land will take care of you."
"Working and hunting on our property also brings great enjoyment and satisfaction to our entire family," Noll maintains. "It gives us a perspective of how we tie into and impact the natural world around us."
A land ethic also involves caring about the creatures that inhabit the land and the laws and administrative rules that govern their protection. Consider William "Bill" Howe of Prairie Du Chien, a delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress for more than 50 years. Howe offers a walking, talking history of conservation leadership.
Howe was an acquaintance of Ernie Swift, former secretary of the Conservation Commission (now DNR). Swift would come to the area to hunt ducks with Howe's kinfolk, as did cartoonist "Ding" Darling of the Des Moines Register, Howe said. Darling was also a wildlife artist, who sketched the first federal duck stamp. In those days, Howe's family published a small newspaper, The Courier, covering Grant and Crawford counties.
Howe became a "river rat" at a young age, fishing and hunting year in, year out along the Mississippi. His commitment to resource protection went beyond the river, however. Howe describes traveling to northern Wisconsin to chase starving deer out of over-browsed areas so that both deer and forest understory would have a chance to survive.
"We had people from the Conservation Commission, Parks and the Conservation Congress all involved," he says. Unfortunately, the operation, conducted near Rhinelander and Eagle River, failed. "They went right back," Howe ruefully adds.
Hunters recognize the urgency of keeping this "biotic" in balance. They understand the relationship between predator and prey, that an abundance of cottontails this year will lead to an increase in coyotes and other predators the next.
Likewise, Leopold understood the relationship between predator and pursued, soil, water and sun, flora and fauna. In addition to his enduring reputation as a wildlife ecologist, Leopold was also a hunter who brought his breathtaking prose to the pursuit of wild game across much of the country and abroad.
Among his writings, Leopold reflects on loosing an arrow at a buck harbored by the branches of a "great oak" – only to whiff. Without remorse, Leopold says, "It was appropriate that I missed, for when a great oak grows in what is now my garden, I hope there will be bucks to bed in its fallen leaves, and hunters to stalk and miss and wonder who built the garden wall."
Leopold understands the inevitable fate of the buck, however. "Someday my buck will get a .30-30 in his glossy ribs. A clumsy steer will appropriate his bed under the oak, and will munch the golden grama until it is replaced by weeds."
The present day hunter often expresses the same sentiment about a great stag that slipped away unharmed. Other times, a wounded animal challenges the strength and endurance of the dedicated hunter whose ethical standards demand an all-out effort to recover the animal – no matter what it takes.
There are other environmental challenges for which hunters will bear great responsibility. This is especially true with regard to white-tailed deer management. As the urban/suburban landscape continues to expand, a more sophisticated approach will be required.
Laura Wyatt is the Urban Forestry Council liaison and partnership specialist with the Department of Natural Resources. Her job is to facilitate cooperative efforts to manage forests within Wisconsin's urban areas containing 27 million trees and where 80 percent of Wisconsin's population lives. She recognizes both the complexity of the urban biota and the threat to its stability from invasive plants and species, particularly deer.
White-tailed deer now inhabit many urban and suburban areas where hunting often finds little support from either a social or a public safety perspective. Without control measures, however, deer populations typically proliferate until action is taken to protect other sectors of Leopold's pyramid.
The same threat of overpopulation exists in rural areas. Efforts to control deer herds include liberal hunting seasons and damage abatement programs involving not only deer but other species such as turkey and bear.
Most tree growers in Wisconsin rely on some form of damage control to safeguard their investment. Fences, deer repellants and protective tubes to guard against antler rubs, all work to safeguard forests. The most significant control measure, however, derives from the hundreds of thousands of hunters who step up each year to harvest adequate numbers of deer.
Wyatt understands the issue from both a personal and a professional perspective. A small herd of deer have taken up residence in her neighborhood in the Madison area. "They follow the railroad track," she explained. "They even eat our bird seed," she said with a laugh.
The former manager of an arboretum in Illinois, Wyatt said control efforts there got into the issue of sharpshooters and the donation of venison to food pantries. Collaborating with all stakeholders is necessary to solve problems of encroachment from deer or other species, she asserts.
"If we have a problem, we need to come together to solve it," she urges. "We're all in this together."
Lee Fahrney is a freelance outdoors writer, hunter and landowner from Iowa County. He is a delegate to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress where he serves as secretary on its three-person Executive Committee. Fahrney and his wife, Marilyn, own 160 acres of land near Hollandale where the couple has restored wetlands, planted thousands of tress and initiated several wildlife habitat projects.