By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers edged closer to passing a bill that would prohibit people from bothering hunters in the woods, pushing the measure through a committee Tuesday despite questions about whether it is necessary or constitutional.
The Assembly’s natural resources committee passed the Republican-authored bill on a 14-1 vote. The committee’s minority Democrats questioned whether the bill might violate nature lovers’ free speech rights but only one of them, Rep. Diane Hesselbein of Middleton, ultimately voted against the proposal.
Concerns about hunter harassment have grown since the Wolf Patrol, a group of animal rights activists, followed and filmed wolf hunters in Wisconsin and Montana in 2014 looking for illegal activity. The federal government placed Great Lakes wolves back on the endangered species list last year, ending Wisconsin wolf hunts. But bear hunters fear activists will come after them next.
Still, it’s unclear whether hunter harassment is really a problem in Wisconsin. State law already prohibits stalking and interfering with hunting, fishing or trapping activities.
During a hearing about the bill last month, its author, Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, pointed to anecdotes about people making noise under tree stands to ruin hunts as a reason it’s needed. But he didn’t cite a single instance where someone had been convicted of harassing or threatening a hunter and he didn’t respond to repeated messages seeking clarification of that point.
A state Department of Natural Resources spokesman had no data immediately available when asked if the agency has any record of hunter harassment convictions. Wolf Patrol representatives say the group has never actually impeded or interfered with anyone.
The bill would add scouting, dog training, baiting and feeding to the list of protected hunting activities. It also would expand the definition of interference to include remaining in a hunter’s sight, photographing a hunter, using a drone to photograph a hunter and confronting a hunter more than twice with the intention of interfering with or impeding their activity. First-time violators would face a $500 fine. Subsequent offenses would carry steeper fines as well as jail time.
The bill’s opponents say the state’s stalking laws already protect hunters and blocking people from watching, approaching or photographing hunters on public land would violate the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee. Supporters counter that a person would have to intentionally interfere with a hunter to run afoul of the law.
Republicans on the committee joined with Democrats Tuesday and adopted an amendment from Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, which clarifies that someone would have to intentionally interfere with a hunting activity to be convicted. But Rep. Katrina Shankland, a Stevens Point Democrat who voted in favor of the bill, still pressed the committee’s attorney, Larry Konapacki, for his opinion on whether the bill would withstand a constitutional challenge.
“That is a really difficult question,” Konopacki replied. “This is something that might be tested at some point.”
Spreitzer said he was satisfied that it would take an intentional act to land someone in trouble. Shankland pressed on, seeking more reassurance from Konopacki. He told her no one could be convicted unless a prosecutor could prove they intended to engage in harassing conduct.
That seemed to satisfy the Democrats, except Hesselbein. She said she still had questions about the bill. She didn’t ask any, though.
The full Assembly wrapped up its fall floor session on Monday and isn’t due to reconvene until January. A spokeswoman for Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the bill’s prospects.