DNR Board Member questions legitimacy of deer tags for young children

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans' decision to eliminate the state's minimum hunting age has created an embarrassing perception that infants are roaming the state's woods with guns and could allow adults to kill more animals using young children's tags, a state Department of Natural Resources board member said Tuesday.

Board member Frederick Prehn told agency officials during a review of the 2017 nine-day gun deer season that he had taken calls about people questioning selling licenses to such young children. He said news of the sales had gone national and generated bad publicity, even though the infants couldn't have been out hunting themselves.

"It was rather embarrassing," Prehn said. "Wisconsin now has babies hunting, which clearly isn't the case."

Walker signed a Republican-backed bill heading into the nine-day hunting season that eliminated the requirement that a child be at least 10 years old to participate in a mentored hunt.

The DNR sold 1,814 mentored hunt licenses to children nine years old or younger by the end of the nine days. Most went to nine-year-olds, though 52 went to children age 5 and under, including 10 that went to kids under a year old.

A four-year-old was the youngest licensee to register a kill, though state data doesn't show who actually killed the deer.

"People call me up and say 'What are you doing, allowing 1-year-olds to hunt?'" Prehn told a reporter during a break. "Clearly a 1-year-old can't hunt."

He said eliminating the hunting age allows adults to use small children's tags to kill more animals for themselves and he believes that's wrong.

"I question why a parent buys a license for a one-year-old," he said. "That's another tag out there."

He asked DNR Chief Warden Todd Schaller during the season review if mentors can actually shoot a deer for a mentee. Schaller said mentors can't do that, though Wisconsin's group hunting statutes allow someone else in the mentor and mentee's party to shoot the deer and use the mentee's tag. He added that four other states — South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota and Vermont — allow similar group hunting dynamics.

Still, Prehn asked Schaller if the agency should be concerned about people buying tags for one-year-olds.

"The law certainly states they can buy tags," Schaller said.

Board chairman Terry Hilgenberg noted that any changes to group hunting statutes would require legislative action.

Republican state Rep. Joel Kleefisch, chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources and Sporting Heritage Committee and one of the chief sponsors of the bill eliminating the minimum hunting age, said in a telephone interview that no young children were injured during the nine-day season and he believes Wisconsin's group hunting statutes work "just fine."

"Those who want to poach will find a way to poach regardless of the law," Kleefisch said.

The board also heard presentations from Schaller, Customer Service Bureau Director Kimberly Currie and Wildlife Management Bureau Director Eric Lobner detailing harvest totals and license sales for the nine-day. They said preliminary data shows:

—Hunters killed 195,738 deer, down slightly from 197,262 last year.

—The DNR sold 588,807 licenses, including 103,208 sold on the Friday before opening day. That total is down from 2016, when the agency sold 598,807 licenses.

—Wisconsin saw hunters from all 50 states and 164 countries.

—Seven people were injured during the season. None died. Six of the last 10 gun deer seasons have now been free of fatalities.

The board voted unanimously to adopt the DNR's recommendation to leave the vast majority of the state's deer management unit boundaries untouched through 2020 and population goals that call for maintaining the herd in 36 counties, increase the herd in 14 counties and decrease the herd in 22 counties.

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