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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

More than 6.3 million acres of publicly owned land are open for hunting. © Robert Queen

August 2008

Make it public

Planning a hunt on Wisconsin's abundant public lands is getting better and easier.

Kathryn A. Kahler

More than 6.3 million acres of publicly owned land are open for hunting.

© Robert Queen
Scout early and take a good map
State land | Federal land | County land
Got a story to tell?
Programs that require landowners to open land to hunting
Land trusts that open land to hunting
Do's and Don'ts for hunting public lands

Private lands open to hunting seem to be disappearing at a steady rate, but if you think you're unlikely to find a place to hunt, think again. More than 6.3 million acres of public lands are open to hunting and another 1.4 million acres of private land are enrolled in programs that require landowners to open their property to hunters.

Of the land in public ownership, 2.5 million acres are owned by Wisconsin counties, 2.3 million acres by the federal government, and 1.4 million acres by the Department of Natural Resources. Most of the county and federal lands are forests in the northern half of the state. State–owned lands open to hunting are largely found in state forests, wildlife and fishery areas, and portions of many state parks and trails.

The Stewardship program, used to purchase land and conservation easements since 1990, now requires that lands purchased with Stewardship Funds remain open to five nature-based outdoor activities – hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking and cross-country skiing, except on the few parcels closed to preserve public safety, to accommodate other uses or to protect a unique plant or animal community.

Steve Miller, director of DNR's Bureau of Facilities and Lands, says the vast majority of state property is open to public hunting. Only about 72,500 acres are closed because they are administrative offices, ranger stations, fish hatcheries, boat launches, wildlife refuges and some state natural areas.

"The state has been in the business of acquiring land for outdoor recreation for over 100 years," says Miller. "Almost one-third of the total 1.4 million acres we now own was purchased in the last 17 years, and 93 percent of it is open to hunting. City and county parks and trails purchased or added to with Stewardship grants are mostly closed to hunting.

"Even so, more than 3,300 acres of these lands are open to hunting of some type," Miller says. "Additional land is open for limited hunt-by-permit programs to control deer populations. For instance, in the CWD zones, the DNR strongly encourages deer hunting in county parks, and Dane County has an archery deer hunt by permit in most of its county parks to help contain CWD."

Scout early and take a good map

"It's never too early to start checking out hunting land," advises Scott Loomans, DNR's wildlife regulations policy specialist. "Scouting in spring and summer may help you anticipate where other hunters will be accessing public property so you can avoid interference. I don't think it will prevent conflict, because only cool heads and reasonable minds can do that."

Give yourself plenty of time to become familiar with the property boundaries, habitat and the species you might find there. One of the most valuable investments you can make is a set of good maps. Compared to the cost of a trespassing ticket, it's a small investment! Website links in this story will allow you to download and print maps. Here are some options for purchasing other good quality maps:

  • County plat books can be purchased for about $40 to $50 from county offices, UW-Extension offices or directly from one of the following publishers. Check before ordering to be sure they carry maps for your county.
  • Cloud Cartographics, 113 5th Avenue South, St. Cloud, MN 56301, 1-800-731-8005
  • Farm & Home Publishers, 524 River Avenue North, Belmond, IA 50421, 1-800-685-7432, or (641) 444-3508
  • Rockford Map Publishers, P.O. Box 6126, Rockford, IL61125, 1-800-321-1627
  • Wisconsin Atlas & Gazetteer, DeLorme, P.O. Box 298, Yarmouth, ME 04016, (207) 846- 7051 or 1-800-561-5105. This popular recreation guide is available for $19.95 from the company's website, book stores and retailers selling hunting and outdoor recreation equipment.
  • Sportsman's Connection, All-Outdoors Atlas & Field Guides, 1423 N. Eighth St., Superior, WI 54880, (1-888) 572-0182. This two-volume set for northern and southern Wisconsin is similar to the DeLorme maps, but contains more details, $29.95 per volume.

Another valuable tool for finding open hunting land that won't cost you a dime is DNR's Stewardship Grant Acquisitions Interactive Web Mapping. Be sure to scroll to the bottom of the page and print out the instructions before getting started.

If you prefer to talk to someone in person, call the DNR Call Center toll free at 1-888-WDNR INFO (1-888-936-7463) where staff is available to answer questions seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Customers can also contact any local DNR Service Center for information.

Some properties have special regulations so check with property managers before the season. Also check out the information on hunting state owned lands and federal lands in the deer and small game hunting regulations booklets.

"Driving off established roads, damaging trees, or leaving blinds or tree stands out overnight are prohibited on state owned lands," says Loomans. "County owned properties may have different regulations."

It's up to you to find the land that's best suited to your particular sport, but resources abound to aid in the search. Here are some to get you started.

State land

Wildlife areas

Almost 300 designated wildlife and fishery areas are scattered across the state, ranging in size from the 171-acre Behning Creek Wildlife Area in Polk County, to the 44,000 acres in public ownership along the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway. The DNR website at State Wildlife Areas can help you locate each wildlife area by clicking on a state map, choosing from an alphabetical list, or by selecting a county. For some wildlife areas, the website provides a property map, location, directions, a history of the property, and a description of the habitat and species found. Many other listings don't include online details, but all provide maps and directions.

All state wildlife areas are open to a full range of traditional outdoor recreational uses, including hunting, fishing, trapping, hiking, nature study and berry picking. Be aware that you may encounter others outdoors and be cautious and courteous.

"Some public hunting grounds are private lands that are leased or eased for public hunting," adds Loomans. "Our signs usually indicate if the property is leased or eased and, in those situations, hunting is the only legal activity. The landowner retains the rights to mushrooms, asparagus and berry-picking."

Properites co-managed with conservation organizations are often open to hunting, but check for special conditions. © Kathryn A. Kahler
Properites co-managed with conservation organizations are often open to hunting, but check for special conditions.

© Kathryn A. Kahler

State parks, trails and southern forests

More than 40 of DNR's park properties are open to hunting and fall within three categories: unrestricted, CWD and limited access. Maps showing the park boundaries and where hunting is allowed can be downloaded from State Parks and Trails Hunting Opportunities or are available at each park office. Vehicle admission stickers and valid deer hunting licenses are required at all parks. As you would expect, campgrounds, beach areas, headquarters and park building sites and private residences within park properties are generally included in the no-hunting areas of the parks. Camping is restricted to designated campsites.

Unrestricted access: The following parks do not require special access permits for hunting, though some have special regulations and closed areas within their boundaries: Big Bay, Buckhorn, Governor Thompson, Hartman Creek, Interstate, Kinnickinnic, Mill Bluff, Newport, Rock Island and Willow River.

CWD special access: Hunters who wish to hunt deer during the CWD hunts in the following parks must carry a special free permit available at the park office or at DNR service centers within the CWD zones: Belmont Mound, Blue Mound, Browntown-Cadiz Springs Recreation Area, Devil's Lake, Governor Dodge, Mirror Lake, Natural Bridge, New Glaur Woods, Rocky Arbor, Tower Hill and Yellowstone Lake.

Limited access: The following parks require hunters to buy a $3 Park Hunting Access Permit prior to hunting during allowed seasons. Permits are available on a first-come, first-served basis starting at noon on Saturday, August 23, from any license vendor, rather than from the park. Most parks have special regulations that can be printed (along with the map) at State Parks and Trails Hunting Opportunities. Parks with limited access include: Brunet Island, Council Grounds, Harrington Beach, High Cliff, Kohler-Andrae, Loew Lake Unit-Kettle Moraine State Forest, Peninsula, Perrot, Rib Mountain, Wildcat Mountain and Wyalusing.

Some state trails (Elroy-Sparta and Tuscobia) have unrestricted access for hunting, but check the website for special regulations and maps. Other state trails have varying levels of access, depending upon how much of the property falls within city or county jurisdiction where firearm possession may be limited.

Other recreation areas and southern forest properties that allow hunting are: Hoffman Hills Recreation Area, Richard Bong Recreation Area, Kettle Moraine State Forest-Northern and Southern Units and Point Beach State open to hunting, but check with the property manager to be sure.

State forests

Hunting is allowed on all northern state forests – Brule River, Black River, Coulee Experimental, Flambeau River, Governor Knowles, Peshtigo River and Northern Highland-American Legion. Hunting information and maps of each forest are available at State Forests. (Scroll down and pick a forest from the drop-down list for specific information about each forest.) Check the maps or with property managers for campgrounds, picnic areas, wildlife refuges and other closed areas.

The Brule River State Forest has over 40 miles of hunter walking trails and favorable habitat for deer, grouse, woodcock, bear and waterfowl. The Black River State Forest offers excellent opportunities for white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkey and squirrels. The 90,000 acres comprising the Flambeau River State Forest is open to hunt bear, waterfowl, deer and grouse, to name a few. To the south, the Coulee Experimental State Forest near La Crosse consists of about 3,000 acres of upland timber and open field where hunters will find deer, ruffed grouse, squirrels, turkeys and rabbits.

Governor Knowles State Forest (north of Grantsburg and formerly called the St. Croix River State Forest) has more than 19,000 acres open for white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, black bear, snowshoe hare, squirrel and woodcock hunting. Adjacent to the forest boundary are over 100,000 acres of county forests and two large wildlife areas – Fish Lake and Crex Meadows.

Each fall, the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest draws hunters from around the state for gun and archery deer hunting. Hunting ruffed grouse, woodcock and other small game is also popular here. The diverse forest types on the property, including aspen, birch, oak and pine forests, provide a variety of game habitat. Just over 50 percent of the NH-AL is high- to moderate-quality deer habitat, and 45 percent is high- to moderate-quality ruffed grouse habitat.

Got a story to tell?
We don't expect you to reveal your secret hunting spot, but how about sharing some of your secrets to success while hunting public land? Does a portable tree stand guarantee venison in your freezer? Which forest, park or wildlife area is your favorite? How many years have you been hunting public land and what's your success rate?

Send your letters to:

Readers Write
WNR magazine
P.O. Box 7921
Madison, WI 53707

Federal land

National Forests

Most federal land in Wisconsin is in the two national forests – Chequamegon and Nicolet. The Chequamegon, headquartered in Park Falls, covers about 858,400 acres in Ashland, Bayfield, Sawyer, Price, Taylor and Vilas counties, while the Nicolet, headquartered in Rhinelander, covers nearly 661,400 acres in Florence, Forest, Langlade, Oconto, Oneida and Vilas counties. Find maps and other hunting information at Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, click on "Hunting," or stop in at the headquarters office.

Other than a valid Wisconsin hunting license, no special license or permit is required to hunt the national forest. A daily $5 or annual $20 parking fee is charged in some areas. Portable stands are allowed on national forest lands and must be taken down each night after the hunt. Screw-in steps and permanent stands – anything nailed, bolted or otherwise attached in such a way as to do damage – are prohibited here, as well as on most other public lands. Stands used by hunters can be left in the woods until the last day of the season when they must be removed. Excessive cutting of shooting lanes is prohibited and only trees under one inch in diameter can be cut.

Hunting is permitted on national forest lands except in campgrounds, other developed recreation sites such as boat launches/landings, picnic areas or posted areas. Just as on state property, there may not be signs or fences to tell you where you may be crossing onto private land. The district offices sell visitor maps at various scales that can help you keep your bearings.

Park so you are not blocking traffic. You cannot take your vehicle off-road or on trails in the Chequamegon-Nicolet to either set up a stand or retrieve game. Camping is allowed anywhere in the forest unless posted otherwise. Some campgrounds remain open during hunting seasons, but services such as garbage pickup, snow removal, water, or latrines are not maintained during the late fall and winter months. You can get information on specific campgrounds by contacting one of the district offices.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service land

The Midwest Region of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is committed to providing quality hunting, fishing and wildlife watching on its lands. In Wisconsin, these cover more than 181,000 acres on eight wildlife refuges and two wetland management districts. Hunting is allowed at Fox River, Horicon, Necedah, Trempealeau, Upper Mississippi River and Whittlesey Creek wildlife refuges.

Staff at the Leopold and St. Croix USFWS wetland management districts manage waterfowl production areas (WPA). A listing of WPA properties managed by the Leopold district in the eastern half of the state can be downloaded from Leopold Wetland Management District. For WPA properties in the western half of the state, stop in or call the St. Croix district office at 1764 95th Street, New Richmond, WI, (715) 246- 7784. Links and contact information for all Wisconsin offices of the USFWS are available at Midwest Field Offices by State. Information specific to hunting and fishing on national wildlife refuges in Wisconsin is available at Hunting and Fishing.

Small parcels detached from larger properties may be posted as 'refuges' or 'park lands' but are open for some hunting seasons. © Kathryn A. Kahler
Small parcels detached from larger properties may be posted as "refuges" or "park lands" but are open for some hunting seasons.

© Kathryn A. Kahler

Other federal land

Public hunting is allowed on Fort McCoy property between Sparta and Tomah, about 35 miles east of La Crosse. Check out Fort McCoy, click "Recreation Opportunities" then "Hunting & Fishing." A limited number of gun-deer, archery, turkey and muzzle-loader permits are issued. Fort McCoy has a modified nine-day gun-deer season with two days of buck only (Saturday and Sunday), two days of either sex (Monday and Tuesday), concluded by five days of buck only (Wednesday through Sunday). Fort McCoy is a separate Deer Management Unit and issues its own Hunter Choice Permits. State of Wisconsin Bonus Tags and Hunter Choice Permits are not valid at Fort McCoy.

All seasons, dates and prices are subject to change by Fort McCoy authorities. For further information, call (608) 388-3337. Fort McCoy fishing and hunting permits will soon be available through the Wisconsin Automated License Issuance System (ALIS). To receive an application, send a self-addressed stamped envelope (specify type of application) to: Directorate of Public Works, ATTN: IMWE-MCY-PWEN (Permit Sales), 2171 South Avenue, Fort McCoy, WI 54656-5136; email Permit Sales to request that an application be emailed to you; or, go to Fort McCoy, and download the application and sample envelope. The Permit Sales Office is located in Building 2168 on the property. Office hours are Monday-Friday 7 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

County land

Twenty-nine of Wisconsin's counties, most in the north, have a combined 2.4 million acres in county forests. With the exception of a few sensitive areas, all are open to public hunting. Visit Wisconsin County Forests to find contacts for each of these forests, (Click "Forest Acres," then the county of interest). A few of the counties list links to maps, but you are best off contacting the county's forest administrator – listed on the website – or county park or forest departments located at county courthouses. Or try local chambers of commerce or tourist information centers to see what maps are available.

Check with the county park departments to find out about hunting opportunities in these counties: Dane, Door, Pepin, Portage, Manitowoc, St. Croix, Sheboygan, Lafayette, Sauk, Richland, Fond du Lac and Brown. Brown County Parks has a lot of information about hunting in county parks, including property maps.

Programs that require landowners to open land to hunting

Some private lands enrolled in two forest tax programs are open to public hunting. You can hunt and fish on all Forest Crop Law (FCL) woodlands. However, landowners who enrolled woods in a subsequent program, the Managed Forest Law (MFL), were given the choices of paying a higher tax rate if they decided to close their land to public access. Listings of open forest tax law lands in each county can be downloaded from the DNR's Tax Lands Open to the Public. The listings show the landowner's name, amount of open acreage and the legal description of the property. It's a good idea to purchase a county plat map to be sure of ownership boundaries, roads, rivers, lakes and other land features.

You don't need to ask permission to hunt on open FCL or MFL lands, but it doesn't hurt to call or visit ahead of the hunting season to establish a good relationship with the landowner. It's always a good idea to let the landowner know you will be on the property, especially if their home is on the site. They aren't required to allow you to drive or park on their property. Please don't litter or damage property, and stay on any access lanes the landowner has designated when crossing closed or non-tax law lands to reach open lands. Portable tree stands are allowed, just as on DNR lands, but screw-in steps or any other devices that would damage the landowner's trees are not.

Farmers who suffer damage from wildlife (deer, bear, geese or turkey) can file claims and receive compensation from the Wildlife Damage Abatement and Claims Program (WDACP). In return, they must allow hunters access to their property, either by managed or open access. Under the managed access option, the farmer can limit access to two hunters per 40 acres of suitable hunting lands – a determination made by the county damage specialist. All hunters must ask the farmer's permission prior to hunting and sign the farmer's log book. Under the open access option, the land is open to any hunter who notifies the farmer of their intent to hunt.

Some farmers also receive shooting permits to shoot antlerless deer inside or outside of the regular season, and may allow hunters to help them use their damage tags. Lists of farmers who have received deer damage shooting permits and those enrolled in the WDACP can be downloaded from the DNR website, Two Types of Hunting Opportunities. Be sure to check out the "Commonly Asked Questions" link for information about blaze orange requirements, the number and type of deer you can shoot using the farmer's tag, and what types of weapons you may use.

Land trusts that open land to hunting

Land conservation organizations, or land trusts, conserve thousands of acres across Wisconsin, and some are open to hunting. The Nature Conservancy recognizes hunting as a management tool in reducing deer populations on their properties where natural plant communities need to be protected. The Nature Conservancy allows open hunting without fee or permit at 16 of their preserves in Wisconsin, and takes applications for a permit and fee at another 13 properties. The online permit process, including season dates, hunting guidelines and maps is available at Deer Management Program.

Vicki Elkin, policy director for Gathering Waters Conservancy, an umbrella organization for Wisconsin's land trust community, said there are two options for finding other trust lands open to hunting.

"Visit Gathering Waters Conservancy for a statewide directory and links to all local, regional and statewide land trusts operating in the state. In addition, the 50,000 acres of land purchased by land trusts with Stewardship grants are searchable at Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program. This website also identifies the public access opportunities on each of these properties," said Elkin.

Feature writer Kathryn A. Kahler hunts deeer in southern Wisconsin on public hunting grounds.

Do's and Don't for hunting public lands
Tim Lawhern, DNR's hunting safety administrator, has important advice to make your hunting experience on public land more enjoyable.

"Rule number one is to follow the golden rule and treat everybody else as you would like to be treated," says Lawhern. "Then, follow the four basic hunter safety rules – the TAB-K: Treat every firearm as if it is loaded. Always point the muzzle in a safe direction. Be certain of your target and what's beyond it. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot."

Beyond that, Lawhern advises:

DO wear blaze orange – Chances are greater that you will run into someone on a public hunting ground who is hunting a different species, like turkey, squirrel, grouse, rabbit or coyote, and it's very likely that person won't be wearing blaze orange. Two good rules to follow are, first, be aware of these other hunters, and second, even if you're hunting a species that doesn't require camouflage clothing – and most don't – wear blaze orange anyway.

don't think it's more dangerous to hunt on public land than private land – The fact is, and statistics show, more incidents occur on private land. The chances of being shot and killed by a hunter in North America are exactly the same as being struck by lightning; it's pretty rare. It's a common misperception that hunting on public land is unsafe. don't let that stop you from trying it out.

DO be courteous – It's public land, so it's free for anybody to use. If you see somebody sitting in close proximity to you, get up and move. If you see a hiker or bird-watcher, treat them with courtesy. Leave the property in better condition than you found it. Whatever you bring in, take out, and whatever you find that's not supposed to be there – like soda cans and empty shell casings – take out, too.

don't get into a heated argument – Whatever it's about, it's just not worth it. If you get into a disagreement about something, either try to find a way to mutually settle it, or if it's insignificant, just walk away.

DO report a conflict situation – The best thing to do if you find yourself in a conflict where threats are exchanged is to politely excuse yourself, get to a phone and dial 9-1-1 or the DNR tip-line (1-800-847-9367). If you carry a cell phone, program the number for speed dial.

If you don't know where you are, assume you don't have permission to be there! There may be times when you get lost or turned around and aren't sure if you're still on public property. There aren't always fences or signs designating boundaries. That's why it's important to scout in advance, make sure you understand the maps, and know the boundaries. If you get turned around, go back to where you know you have authority to hunt.

DO make the best possible shot – Take aim. Take your time and you won't have to worry about wounded game running onto private property, or another hunter finishing what you started!

don't cut down live trees or put up permanent tree stands – On public land, only portable tree stands can be used and these must be removed each day and taken home, or back to your campsite. You are also allowed to move dead vegetation or do minor pruning, to make a little blind or to improve your shooting alley, but you can't cut down live trees bigger than an inch in diameter. Leave your chain saw at home!

DO be flexible – Typically, the greatest numbers of hunters use public hunting lands on the first two days of the gun deer season. If you are concerned about safety on opening weekend, consider hunting during the week or the last weekend and you'll find far fewer people on these properties.

Lastly, DO know your limitations – Some public lands are rather inaccessible and just getting back into them can be difficult, not to mention the strenuous task of dragging a deer back out. On private land, you may be able to use pickups and ATVs to get to your deer, but you can't on public land. You might want to buy or borrow some of the specialized equipment and carts to transport your deer back to your vehicle.