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DNR board makes first revisions to bear plan in 39 years

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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Bear hunters won’t be able to use hounds in central Wisconsin under changes the Department of Natural Resources board made to the agency’s bear management plan Wednesday after opponents called the practice a blight on the state.

The revisions mark the first updates to the management plan since 1980. The changes call for dividing the state into six management zones, rather than the current four, and allowing hunters to use dogs in a newly formed central Wisconsin zone.

DNR Large Carnivore Specialist Scott Walter said the additional zones reflect variances in Wisconsin bear habitat and that allowing hounds could lead to more successful hunts in central Wisconsin, cutting down on bear nuisance reports.

The committee presented the changes to the DNR’s board for approval Wednesday afternoon. The central Wisconsin zone hound provisions proved to be a sticking point, with opponents and supporters disagreeing in front of the board.

Megan Nicholson, director of the Human Society of the United States’ Wisconsin chapter, said using hounds isn’t sporting.

“Hounding is a blight on our state,” she said.

Mike Brust, of Wausau, noted that bear hunters already can use hounds across prime bear range in northern Wisconsin and said that expanding their use makes hunters look bad and will lead to trespassing, as dogs pursue bears across different properties.

“There is almost nowhere in (the central Wisconsin zone) where a chase wouldn’t cross private property,” he said. “It’s not necessary. Bears can easily be managed (in the zone) without the use of dogs.”

Bob Welch, a lobbyist for the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, argued that DNR officials introduced the idea during deliberations on the revisions. He noted that bear hunters can train hounds in that area of the state in July and August and allow their use in actual hunting wouldn’t really change anything. He said the association would work with wardens to discourage trespassing.

“We support more opportunities,” Welch said. “People like this sport and they want to take advantage of it, and this gives them a new opportunity.”

Board member Terry Hilgenberg said the notion that wardens will stop trespassing is “ridiculous,” since the DNR has so few wardens. He said that if the DNR wants to reduce the number of bears in central Wisconsin, it should start the season sooner.

Board Chairman Fred Prehn called using hounds in central Wisconsin a “terrible idea.” Hunters who use hounds already have their niche in northern Wisconsin, he said.

In the end, the board voted 6-1 to remove the hound provision from the plan. Bill Bruins was the only board member who voted to keep it, saying there’s no evidence that using hounds would create a problem and he’s worried hunters won’t reach their quota in the zone without them, leaving farmers to grapple with bear-induced crop damage.

The board then approved the management plan. DNR officials will now start implementing it by developing administrative rules. That process could take a few years. Walter said the earliest the changes could go into effect would be the fall of 2021.

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