Madison — An informal audit of citations written by DNR conservation wardens from 2003 through 2013 shows that the number of citations issued from 2011 through 2013 has dropped – dramatically in some cases – in nearly all violation types monitored by the DNR.
While no one reason has been identified for this change, George Meyer, executive director for the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and former DNR secretary, said enforcement of all conservation violations declined 28 percent in the years 2011-13 compared with 2003-10.
There are nearly 400 types of violations enforced by DNR conservation wardens.
Meyer and others crunched the numbers for all of the line items over that time period to come up with an overall decrease of 28 percent. However, Meyer said individual line items of “important” violations saw much higher reductions in citations.
For instance, citations for hunting deer during the closed season declined 85 percent from 2011-13 compared with 2003-10. Other violations Meyer highlighted were:
- Deer shining down 44 percent;
- Hunting deer from public roads declined 20 percent;
- Fishing without a license declined 35 percent;
- OWI watercraft operation declined 33 percent;
- Alteration of habitat in public waters declined 62 percent.
“The results indicate major declines in enforcement for virtually all categories … enforced by … wardens,” Meyer said in a press release. “The WWF analysis compared the average annual number of citations issued for each enforcement category for the years 2003-10 and 2011-13. The comparisons show a sharp decline in the issuance of … citations for violations in the years 2011-13.”
The information was collected by Tom Thoresen, of Fitchburg, a retired DNR warden who made an open records request. Thoresen is on the board of directors of the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters. He started his search by looking at environmental citations, then looked at fish and wildlife enforcement. Thoresen shared his findings with Meyer.
Todd Schaller has nearly completed his first year as the DNR’s chief conservation warden. He said in no uncertain terms that DNR leaders have not asked field wardens to hand out fewer tickets.
“There has been no change in policy,” Schaller said. “To judge this based on (the number of) citations is not a fair assessment. Education and community involvement is a large part of a warden’s overall program. We put a lot of work over the past several years into community-involvement programs, such as Learn to Hunt, moreso than we have in the past. That can impact citation numbers if you just want to look at that,” he said.
Some of the decrease might be blamed on vacancies, but Schaller didn’t point in that direction. He said vacancies have always been an issue. The DNR now has 198 credentialed full-time-equivalent positions, but is authorized to have 224.
“We’ve always had vacancies. Right now we are under 5 percent. In 2009 it was 10 percent; in 2010, just over 7 percent. It’s always a fluctuating number,” he said.
Larry Bonde, of Kiel, serves on the Conservation Congress for Manitowoc County. Bonde goes to the county circuit court at the end of every month to review citations issued by DNR wardens.
“The wardens used to write 60 to 70 citations a month. During the salmon runs in the fall, it’s an easy 60 to 70 tickets a month. During the gun deer season, around 100 tickets in Manitowoc County. Now I’m seeing half a dozen to 10. One month we only had three citations,” he said.
Bonde said the Green Bay team, which covers Manitowoc County, has six field warden positions, but only two are filled. He said the marine team used to help fill in on dry ground, but that hasn’t happened much since Ryan Volenberg moved to the Poynette station. Bonde said DNR warden supervisor George Protegere, of Green Bay, is taking complaints and filling in for all four vacancies.
“There may be many causes for this decline in conservation enforcement, including reduced agency emphasis in enforcement of conservation laws, reduced funding for conservation warden patrols, and increased vacancies in warden positions,” Meyer said in a press statement. “The federation calls on the governor, the Legislature, and DNR leadership to take measures to correct the reason for the decline in enforcement of conservation laws.”
Later, during a phone interview, Meyer said a decrease in enforcement will be noticed by the outdoor public and that will negatively impact the DNR’s bottom line if even a small percentage of sportsmen believe they can get by without buying a license.
“It’s not fair to the majority of sportsmen who do buy licenses. This affects law-abiding citizens, and it could eventually impact the DNR budget. Would two or three years do it? Maybe not. But if it becomes more known, that’s when you see drop-offs (in license purchases),” Meyer said.
Schaller said his wardens have not decreased their field presence.
“Our wardens are still involved in the community. I don’t see that having an impact on license sales or people trying to skirt the law thinking we’re not out and about when, in fact, we are out there,” Schaller said.
“Our different initiatives certainly are a part of this. We’re doing more youth fishing events, Learn to Hunt events, we’re involved in the new deer season structure, meetings with the public – there is a lot of pro-active stuff we’re doing that can impact citations. And, a lot of things can. We’ve had changes in the law (gun case law) and weather,” he said.
“It’s not that we’re not doing our job. I haven’t heard much from the public. I checked in with some state organizations. It hasn’t even caused a stir within the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation,” he said.
Nor does Schaller think the change has come about because of a lack of motivation.
“Motivated? Since 2011, we have hired 50 new officers who are engaged in their jobs. They are motivated. They know what their role is within the agency and within the community,” said Schaller, adding that the DNR also made initial offers to 11 recruits.
Bonde, Meyer, Marc Schultz, and Mike Arrowood suggested the DNR pull the wardens away from recruiting and retention so that time can be used in the field. Schultz is chairman of the La Crosse County Conservation Alliance, and Arrowood is with Walleyes for Tomorrow.
“They’re putting a lot of emphasis on recruitment and retention,” Bonde said. “I don’t know if that’s the best way to use warden hours. Randy’s (Stark, former chief warden) argument was that people look up to wardens and kids like to interact with them, but … .”
“Recruitment and retention is important, wardens should be involved, but to what extent? This is a legitimate question. It takes a lot of time and effort to train and equip credentialed law enforcement officers. Shouldn’t we have other people out there doing the recruitment and retention? We should not be taking a major part of their time away from basic law enforcement,” Meyer said.
“On Winnebago, overbagging and multiple-trip fishing is so commonplace it is a joke,” Arrowood said. “Fond du Lac has not had a warden for more than six months in the past two years and everyone knows it.”
“They have less time in the field, their jobs are more diverse, more complicated, there is less money, less time for the wardens. At some point they’re going to be less effective,” Schultz said. “The Learn to Hunt – there is nothing wrong with that, but you have to make it up somewhere else.”
Meyer took a swing at the education argument, too.
“They make the point that we’ve been successful on education and that’s why violations are down. There are about 390 classifications of violations. There is a decrease in virtually all of those classifications,” Meyer said. “That doesn’t happen through education. New laws? Sure, there is some education and certainly you will have a decrease (in citations), but not in all of these categories. They’re not doing that broad of an education effort,” Meyer said.
“The DNR has been doing that for 20 years, trying to gain greater compliance via education. That does not explain reduced results in terms of violations, and these violations are the kind where education plays no role. These are intentional violations. You know if you are shooting deer out of season – that doesn’t happen because you don’t know the rules. If you’re shooting deer at night with a light, that gets deterred by enforcement, not education,” Meyer said. “Operating a watercraft while intoxicated, that should be zero tolerance,” Meyer said. “Those are cases where you need citations.
“We’re going to continue to monitor this and bring it to the public’s attention. The same is true with environmental violations – we’re working on that, too … ,” he said.
Schaller said a law enforcement program is based on three key elements: enforcement, education, and community involvement.
“Evaluating a program based only on citations is not an accurate reflection of the great work done by the Bureau of Law Enforcement and our role as ambassadors for Wisconsin’s natural resources,” he said.