DNR not changing confusing signs at wildlife area where coyote hunter shot two dogs
The state Department of Natural Resources is not changing confusing signs at entrances to a state wildlife area in southern Dane County that played a role in a 2016 incident there when a coyote hunter shot and killed two unleashed dogs.
Language on the signs at the Badfish Creek Wildlife Area are correct regarding when dogs can run unleashed on state wildlife areas so they don’t need to be changed, according to DNR spokesman James Dick.
Dick also said there are no restrictions on what kind of dogs can run unleashed at the state wildlife area located in the town of Rutland.
That contradicted testimony by some former DNR officials during a two-day jury trial in January for the hunter, Kurt Rausch, formerly of Evansville. They cited a state law that says only hunting dogs or dogs in training to be hunting dogs can run unleashed there.
The DNR’s decision and interpretation of the rules is not making the state’s mixed-use lands safer for everyone who uses them, according to an animal behavior expert.
“Right now these confusing signs and regulations make it exceptionally difficult to know where it’s safe and when it’s safe to use this mixed-use land,” said Patricia B. McConnell, an applied animal behaviorist, author and adjunct professor of zoology at UW-Madison.
“I think it’s such a shame that Wisconsin has this long history of responsible hunting and it has been compromised by policies and procedures that inherently creates these conflicts — and obviously sometimes very dangerous ones — between hunters and trappers and others.”
Rausch received a split verdict on charges that he mistreated the animals when he mistakenly shot and killed the dogs that were running ahead of their owner, Deanna Clark, in the wildlife area in southern Dane County at about 6 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2016.
Testimony showed that Rausch didn’t follow proper identification procedures when he shot the dogs that were wearing reflective vests as they scampered through brush toward him.
But much of the trial centered on claims by the defense that Clark was breaking the rules when she let her dogs run unleashed that night at the wildlife area.
Both Rausch and Clark testified that the incident, which drew national attention, radically changed their lives for the worse. Rausch and his family, as well as Clark, moved out of the state this year.
Rausch was sentenced to six months in the Dane County Jail by Dane County Circuit Judge Josann Reynolds in February but she told him she’d stay the sentence if he completed a hunter safety course within six months. He met that requirement, according to online court records.
Clark testified that she thought she could let her dogs run unleashed there because the sign at the entrance to the Badfish Creek Wildlife Area says dogs must be leashed only during the nesting period between April 15 and July 31.
Clark, a veterinarian who lived in Edgerton at the time of the incident, also testified that she let her dogs run unleashed there more than 100 times.
But there is additional language on the sign that says “additional restrictions apply.” It directs users to seek out unspecified “regulation pamphlets” and a section of the state administrative code.
The former DNR officials, including a former warden, testified for the defense that the state administrative code says only hunting dogs or dogs in training to become hunting dogs can run unleashed except during the nesting period.
They also testified that the language on the sign should be changed because it was easily misinterpreted and that the rule was rarely, if ever, enforced.
But such an interpretation is for state properties with more restrictive rules for dogs and state wildlife areas aren’t among those properties, according to Dick.
“The sign correctly displays hunting as a primary use on the property and states that all dogs must be leashed from April 15 to July 31 during the nesting season. Outside of this time period, dogs may be unleashed irrespective of the use and dogs owners are well within their rights to have unleashed dogs on the wildlife area,” Dick said in an email. “Other state lands, including (state parks), have more restrictive dog/leash rules but state wildlife areas do not.”
After the trial in January, state Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, wanted the DNR to change the sign and said the Legislature should force the DNR’s hand if the DNR decided against changing it.
Ringhand said later that it would be difficult to get the Republican-led Legislature to approve the change. But she said the different interpretations of the law continue to concern her because of the confusion they create.
“I still think it can be a dangerous situation,” she said. “We’ll keep after it.”