Wisconsin’s ‘Right to Hunt’ Law Could Mean Jail for Animal Activists

Similar to ag-gag laws, the bill would prohibit people from photographing the hunting of bears and wolves on public land.
(Photo: Jupiter Images/Getty Images)
Oct 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Could carrying a camera in a state park cost you thousands of dollars in fines and nine months in jail?

Yes, if Wisconsin’s new “Right to Hunt” bill, which was introduced last week by Republican state Rep. Adam Jarchow, becomes law.

The bill comes in response to activities by a group called Wolf Patrol, which in recent months has attempted to document and monitor the trapping and hunting of wolves, bears, and other wildlife in Wisconsin. The group this year has focused on the use of bait to attract bears. Although baiting is legal in Wisconsin, Wolf Patrol says it attracts gray wolves. The wolves in turn have killed at least 15 hunting dogs this season.

Jarchow told Wisconsin Public Radio that he submitted his bill in response to complaints from hunters who felt Wolf Patrol was harassing them.

Wolf Patrol founder Rod Coronado calls his group’s activities “citizen monitoring.” He said Wolf Patrol’s approach is nonconfrontational—a change from his own past, which includes an arson conviction for burning an animal-research facility at Michigan State University in 1995. “There’s nothing illegal about what we’re doing now, as long as our intent is not to interfere,” he said.

The proposed bill, however, would criminalize photographing or videotaping hunters, as well as what it calls “impeding a person who is engaged in an activity associated with lawful hunting.” It would also cover any “acts that are preparatory to lawful hunting, fishing, or trapping.”

Experts said the bill was similar to, but in many ways worse than, ag-gag laws that seek to prohibit undercover investigations at livestock farming operations. “To put it mildly, it’s very constitutionally suspect,” said Justin Marceau, the Animal Legal Defense Fund professor of law at the University of Denver. “The idea you’re going to regulate who can take photos on public land is pretty shocking. You don’t see laws like that anywhere in the free world.”

Marceau said components of the bill covering areas “preparatory” to hunting were also unusually broad. For example, he said, the bill could be used to block protests outside hunting-supply stores or hotels where hunters sleep. “These are all traditional public forums, places where the First Amendment is at its apex,” he said.

Although many states, including Wisconsin, have similar (but less powerful) “right to hunt” laws on the books, Marceau pointed out that “hunting is not a constitutionally protected right.” He said that many of the measures, especially the bill in Wisconsin, would not be likely to survive constitutional scrutiny.

RELATED: Alaska’s Wolves Face Catastrophe

For his part, Coronado said his group does not oppose hunting but that it is attempting to support ethical practices.

Those don’t include, in his mind, baiting, which Coronado said he does not consider ethical or safe. “I never realized personally what it looked like until I went out there this July while we were investigating the bear baiting,” he said. “It was just crazy. We just couldn’t believe how many of these baits are out there and how sloppy they are.”

Coronado said he does not expect the Wisconsin bill to get much traction, and his group plans to continue its activities. This week it will start monitoring Wisconsin’s coyote season, which poses threats to the state’s wolves. “We’re going to check to see if there’s active trapping in known wolf habitat,” he said. “If there is, we’re going to put up trail cameras to see what we can see.”

For now, at least, that remains legal.