Hunters face patchwork of weapon regulations
End of state's rifle ban could mean Wisconsin deer hunters face host of new local rules
Wisconsin wildlife officials' decision to drop rifle restrictions going into this month's gun deer hunt was supposed to make things simpler. But hunters better do their homework before they head into the woods because local governments now are weighing whether to impose their own bans, potentially creating a patchwork of rules.
The DNR lifted its rifle ban earlier this year in the nearly 20 counties where it remained in effect. The move makes more powerful and accurate weapons available to deer hunters who had been limited to shotguns during the nine-day gun hunt.
Local governments can still restrict rifles, however, and a number have been working to pass limits before the season starts Nov. 23. That could leave hunters sifting through a patchwork of regulations to figure out whether they can use a rifle in their favorite patch of woods.
"Hunters will have to literally check the specific rules for every community they hunt, and don't think that a single round of phone calls will be sufficient for your whole season," Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, one of the most avid hunters in the Legislature, warned in a statement. "The bottom line here is that the hunter still has (to do) the homework."
The DNR banned rifles decades ago in a number of southern counties to limit the deer kill and grow local herds. Hunters in those areas were forced to use weapons with less accuracy and range, such as shotguns, muzzleloaders, pistols or bows and arrows. As the deer population grew, justification for the regulations shifted to protecting the public from far-traveling rifle rounds.
But over the past 15 years or so, the DNR has lifted the restrictions on a county-by-county basis. By last spring, the ban was still in place in all or part of only 19 counties.
The agency's board decided in May to lift the ban completely. DNR Administrative Warden Matt O'Brien wrote in an October memo the change was meant to streamline deer hunting rules. It also had become difficult for the agency to back up the idea that shotguns were safer when rifles had always been legal for hunting coyote, fox and bear, he wrote.
The attempt to simplify the rules may lead to more complications, however. If local governments enact their own rifle restrictions, hunters could face a checkerboard of ordinances.
"One of the potential unfortunate consequences of the statewide rule change designed to simplify the law may in fact result in more confusion for Wisconsin citizens if they are forced to navigate a complex patchwork of local ordinances that may be difficult to find or understand," O'Brien wrote.
The DNR's move, for example, ended shotgun-only restrictions in Washington County. But the village board in Germantown last month passed its own ordinance restricting rifles that generally fire anything larger than a .223-caliber round. Police Chief Peter Hoell pushed the new ordinance, warning rifle rounds could fly far across the village's open fields.
Joel Gunnlaugsson, chairman of the formerly shotgun-only town of Washington on Washington Island, said town officials are working to create their own rifle prohibition but he doesn't know if it will be ready for this year's hunt.
"Most parcels (on the island) are 40-acre chunks. A rifle can shoot across a 40-acre field like nothing," Gunnlaugsson said. "If they miss, that could go for three other 40s."
Rick Stadelman, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, said he doesn't have a clear picture of how many towns may enact their own restrictions before the gun hunt begins, but he suspects it will be only a handful in more urban areas.
Hunters shouldn't have a tough time tracking down their local rules, he said. More than half of the state's towns have websites, people can go to their town halls or contact their town clerks and town officials pass such changes at publicly noticed meetings, he said.
"You don't go hunting in 10 different spots," Stadelman said. "It's not like town government is in another country."
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