Wisconsin shines as host of a national outdoor event. Exotic species continue to wreak havoc on fisheries. Once endangered, the bald eagle and timber wolf populations continue to increase.
A deer hunting season that will forever be remembered for the homicides of six hunters. Five state record fish are caught. Racine County becomes part of a Chronic Wasting Disease management zone. Like everywhere in our society, the little universe we call the outdoors is filled with stories of hope, despair, delight and disbelief. The 12 months that just flowed through our lives were no exception.
All of us in Wisconsin who love the outdoors have much to be thankful for. In many respects, the opportunities to fish and hunt and hike and camp have never been better. Yet challenges seem to grow with the opportunities. Challenges such as suburban sprawl and loss of green space, wildlife diseases, introduction of exotic species, cutbacks in staff and funding in the Department of Natural Resources.
But as long as Wisconsinites continue to care for their outdoor opportunities as much as I know they do, there will always be reason for optimism. As we prepare to turn the page into the New Year and create a fresh set of tracks, here's a reminder of some of the leading conservation-related stories of 2004: January - A wild white-tailed deer killed near the town of Brighton in Kenosha County tested positive for Chronic Wasting Disease, the eastern-most such finding to date in Wisconsin. In other news, Governor Doyle established an Invasive Species Council to recommend to the department ways to control and manage invasive species in Wisconsin. The council is charged with developing a system for classifying invasive species and establishing a procedure for awarding cost-share grants to public and private entities to control invasive species. The Legislature in the 2003-2005 budget authorized $500,000 annually for a new aquatic invasive species grant program. The DNR is developing administrative rules to establish how the program will operate, who is eligible, and the kinds of projects eligible for grants. And on January 9, the National Wild Turkey Federation in conjunction with the DNR released five wild turkeys in Big Muskego Wildlife Management Area in Waukesha County, assisting the continued comeback of the native bird in Wisconsin. The population of wild turkeys in Wisconsin is estimated at 320,000.
February - The 2004 Lake Winnebago lake sturgeon spearing season went down in the record books for the highest one-day harvest, the shortest season, and the largest fish ever taken from Lake Winnebago, but also for having greatly exceeded the harvest cap put in place to protect this unique fishery. Spearers registered 1,303 sturgeon on Feb. 14, the opening day of the season, the highest one-day harvest of sturgeon ever. The harvest of 509 adult females speared surpassed the total allowable harvest for adult females of 425.The season lasted just 12 hours, as spearers quickly exceeded the harvest number that triggers closure of the season. A spearer harvested a sturgeon that was 79.5 inches long and weighed 188 pounds, the largest fish ever taken from Lake Winnebago during 73 seasons and besting the previous 51-year-old record of 180 pounds. In other developments, the DNR reported more bad news in its annual assessment of Lake Michigan yellow perch. According to a DNR status report, the 2003-04 winter graded mesh assessment produced the fewest fish in the history of the test. No definitive answer has emerged for the 12-year perch decline.
March - Shane Hill of Racine is named Outstanding Member of the Year by the Wisconsin Bowhunting Association. The 9,000-member association is the state's largest group dedicated to promoting the sport of hunting with bow and arrow. The state Natural Resources Board approved removal of the gray wolf from the state endangered and threatened species lists at its March meeting. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) continues to list the wolf as a threatened species under federal law. Results of overwinter wolf surveys estimate the current population of gray wolves in Wisconsin at around 400 animals. Wolves will continue to be protected in Wisconsin under state and federal law, but wildlife officials say the change will eventually give them more control over dealing with problem wolves. Also, a 1 pound, 13 ounce northern hog sucker was caught in the Fox River in Green Lake County on March 17 and a 73-pound, 1.6-ounce bigmouth buffalo was taken from Lake Koshkonong in Jefferson County on March 22, establishing state records for both species.
April - The 2004 Wisconsin Spring Fish and Wildlife Rules Hearings and Conservation Congress Annual Meetings are attended by 6,017, down from the long-term average of 7,000. Ninety-one people attended the Racine County meeting. Among statewide results at the meetings, voters opposed proposals for a 23-day deer hunt and fall turkey hunting with dogs.
May - Hunters registered 47,373 turkeys during Wisconsin's 2004 spring wild turkey season, a 10 percent increase over the 2003 spring harvest of 42,970 birds. The 2004 spring turkey hunt represents the 22nd consecutive season of increased harvests. A spearing record for bowfin at 7 pound, 6.9 ounce. The fish was taken in the Mississippi River in Buffalo County on May 27. June - A spearing record for common carp at 48 pound, 3 ounce from Lake Eau Claire on June 15. A cool, wet spring was largely responsible for a statewide decrease in the gypsy moth population and the resulting lack of feeding damage from the caterpillars, according to state forestry scientists. Aerial surveys over much of eastern Wisconsin revealed a striking decline in the amount of tree defoliation. Trained observers spotted only 20 acres of moderate defoliation. In 2003, 65,000 acres of wooded areas were defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars, mostly in Marinette, Portage and Waupaca counties July - Roger Hays Jr. of Franksville took home the top prize at the 2004 Salmon-A-Rama fishing tournament, held July 10 to 18 at the Racine lakefront. Hays caught a 25.26 pound chinook salmon, edging out a chinook registered by Maynard Ferguson of Kenosha by just 0.1 pound. Salmon-A-Rama added a kayak fishing division this year, and Matthew Leopold of Racine registered an 8.62-pound brown trout to take top honors in this category. In other events, the ESPN Great Outdoor Games came to Wisconsin this year, and 68,424 people attended the competitions in venues around Madison. The attendance was a record for the event, held previously in Lake Placid, New York and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Several Wisconsinites won gold medals at the games, including Tina Bosworth of Lake Geneva in women's log rolling.
August - A man from Ankeny, Iowa, on Aug. 23 landed a 36 pound, 8.9 ounce brown trout from the Wisconsin waters of Lake Michigan, setting a record for brown trout from outlying waters. The catch erased the previous record by more than a pound and, at 40.5 inches in length, was 2 inches longer. September - A lack of precipitation during late summer and early fall limited the Root River spawning run of chinook and coho salmon. The Root River Steelhead Facility sat idle for much of the fall, causing concern on the part of Lake Michigan fisheries managers and prompting requests for egg contributions from Michigan and New York. However, a series of rain storms drew good numbers of coho into the facility in late October, allowing DNR crews to collect 500,000 coho eggs for the state's hatchery system and putting the state in good position to meet its 2005 stocking goals.
October - Preliminary numbers indicate turkey hunters shot 10,216 turkeys during the fall season, down from final harvest numbers of 12,466 for the 2003 fall season. Brood surveys had indicated there was a decrease in turkey production in Wisconsin in 2003, likely because of a cold, wet late spring and early summer. There were 78,900 permits available for the 30-day 2004 fall season. A preliminary count of deer registered in the Oct. 28-31 Zone T gun deer hunt showed Wisconsin hunters registering 67,167 deer in mixed weather conditions across the state. The four-day weekend total includes harvest from 74 of the state's 135 deer management units, designated as either Zone T or Earn-a-Buck and 18 CWD units.
November - A preliminary total of 303,162 deer were registered by hunters at the close of Wisconsin's nine-day gun deer season, including 430 in Racine County. Hunters registered 304,538 deer statewide during the same period in 2003. A total of 649,955 deer hunting licenses were sold this year, a one percent increase over 2003. The 2004 deer hunting season had the lowest number of accidents occurring in any previous gun deer season in Wisconsin. Two hunters died and three others suffered injuries as a result of hunting accidents during the nine-day gun deer hunt. None of the accidents involved juvenile hunters. However, the season was marred by the tragic homicide of six hunters in Sawyer County that escalated out of a trespass incident.
December - The 32,000-acre Horicon Marsh was recognized as Wisconsin's first Important Bird Area (IBA). An Important Bird Area is a site that provides critical habitat for one or more species of bird at any stage during the animal's life cycle. This includes areas important to mating, nesting, foraging, summer and winter habitat, and/or migratory stopovers. In an effort to reduce deer numbers, the DNR, in cooperation with landowners who have granted access to their properties, began shooting deer outside normal shooting hours and at night with the aid of artificial light in Racine County and selected other areas of the chronic wasting disease management zones. DNR staff will also start trapping deer in early January in urban areas in these locations that include the eastern Disease Eradication Zone (DEZ) in southeastern Rock and southwestern Walworth counties, and in Kenosha and Racine counties within a 10-mile radius around Brighton.