Fears arise over helicopters in hunt

May 18, 2002 Wisconsin State Journal by Ron Seely
Landowners in the Mount Horeb area aren't likely to see helicopters bristling with guns anytime soon, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

The agency received authority from the state Legislature last week to hunt deer from helicopters and from roadsides as part of its efforts to eradicate chronic wasting disease.

In the heated late-night debate that preceded passage of the special legislation, the authority to use helicopters drew fire from a number of lawmakers who said constituents are worried about the dangers of such an intensive hunt. "People are telling me they are very concerned," said state Rep. Stephen Freese, R-Dodgeville. Freese introduced an amendment to remove the agency's authority to use helicopters but it was voted down.

Gov. Scott McCallum is scheduled to sign the CWD legislation this afternoon and Freese is encouraging him to veto the use of helicopters. A spokesman for McCallum said that as of Friday no decision had been made on whether parts of the proposal might be vetoed.

The DNR hopes to kill 15,000 deer in a 287-square-mile area near Mount Horeb to halt the spread of the fatal brain disease. Although the agency expects most of the animals to be killed during an extended hunt next fall, it is also planning to allow landowners to kill deer in the eradication zone over the summer months. The agency also will hire sharpshooters to help kill deer.

The special legislation passed last week would give the DNR authority to shoot deer from aircraft and boats and across dirt roads. It also gave the agency the authority to regulate feeding of deer.

Tom Hauge, director of wildlife management for the DNR, said safety is a primary concern as the agency prepares to issue permits to landowners to shoot deer. He said that landowners who get permits will be reminded of safe hunting practices, such as wearing blaze orange and being certain of a target.

Hauge said the hunt by landowners, or by hunters selected by landowners, will be very low-key and nothing like the gun-popping frenzy of the traditional November hunting opener.

"Frankly," Hauge said, "I don't even think people will notice what is going on out there."

It is unlikely, Hauge said, that helicopters will be used until next fall or winter. And then, he added, they will probably be used mostly to drive deer toward shooters on the ground. Hauge said hunters would probably not shoot from helicopters unless there is snow on the ground so that visibility is improved.

"They're a tool of last resort," Hauge said. "We're going to mostly use the hunters and landowners."

But some remain skeptical.

"I have half a million people who come to Iowa County every year as tourists," Freese said. "They're going to have no clue what's going down. They're going to be out there with their families with no idea."

One group, called Citizens Against Irrational Deer Slaughter, has hired an attorney and is contemplating legal action to stop the hunt.

Madison attorney David Mandell said a lawsuit is a possibility.

"As far as legal action, we're definitely intending to pursue it," Mandell said. "But we don't want to jump into court prematurely. ... There are a lot of safety issues."

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