MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Deer, bears, wolves, mourning doves, even wild pigs - if it walks, crawls or flies in Wisconsin, hunters can probably shoot it. Now a state lawmaker wants to declare open season on one more animal: the wily woodchuck.
Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, is putting the finishing touches on a bill that would remove woodchucks from Wisconsin's protected species list and allow people to kill an unlimited number of woodchucks during a season that would run nearly year-round. Jacque said woodchucks don't serve protected status because they're abundant and a nuisance.
"There really isn't a good justification for why woodchucks are on the protected list," Jacque said. "(The season) is more to control a nuisance. I can imagine they can certainly do some damage."
The bill represents another expansion of hunting rights in Wisconsin and promises to re-ignite a years-old debate over whether hunters really need another target species. Attempts over the last decade to create hunts for feral cats and mourning doves, the state's symbol of peace, drew fierce opposition. The state's new wolf season sent animal lovers into a rage last year and an attempt to create a sandhill crane hunt last spring went nowhere after opponents mounted an intense campaign to stop it.
Woodchucks, also known as groundhogs, aren't as near and dear to Wisconsinites' hearts as wolves, mourning doves and cranes. But they do have a place in the state's lexicon. Wausau has an amateur baseball team known as the Woodchucks and Sun Prairie boasts Jimmy the Groundhog, Wisconsin's answer to Punxsutawney Phil (Jimmy predicted an early spring this year, disappointing fans who are still dragging themselves through winter's dregs).
Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club's Wisconsin chapter, said her group doesn't oppose hunting in general, but going after woodchucks doesn't seem responsible. Property owners already can kill nuisance groundhogs and she's never heard of anyone eating woodchuck.
"Why can't these trigger-happy folks shoot targets or cans like I did when I was little?" Warner wrote in an email to The Associated Press. "How are you going to explain to a second-grader in Sun Prairie why we shot Jimmy the Groundhog??"
Woodchucks are beaver-like rodents known for burrowing and devouring plants. "They're just like a lawnmower in the garden. They're ferocious herbivores," said Scott Craven, professor emeritus in the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Forest and Wildlife Ecology Department.
Wisconsin wildlife officials designated woodchucks as protected decades ago, meaning landowners can kill them when they're on their property but anyone else would need the state Department of Natural Resources' permission to kill one. DNR officials said it's unclear exactly why woodchucks were protected; Craven said woodchucks were once scarce in Wisconsin and state officials wanted to ensure they continued to burrow because the holes can provide important shelter for a number of other animals.
Over the years, though, the woodchuck population has grown. The DNR doesn't count woodchucks, but agency ecologists believe they're now common statewide. And with their resurgence has come plenty of holes in the ground, bill supporters say.
The bill's genesis lies with a Manitowoc man named Dan Cichantek. Also known as "Trapper Dan," Cichantek works in his spare time as a nuisance trapper. He said woodchucks have become one of the most pressing problems in his area, burrowing holes along the interstate as well as in roadside ditches, county parks and school grounds.
"When I was a kid in Manitowoc County, we really didn't have any woodchucks," he said. "Now they're like everywhere. People call me up and say 'Can you remove this for me?' I say 'no, I can't.' When they're on public property there's nothing anybody can do."
Cichantek offered a resolution for a woodchuck season at a Wisconsin Conservation Congress spring hearing in Manitowoc County in 2008. The congress is an influential group of sportsmen who advise the DNR on outdoor issues.
The resolution passed. The following year the congress presented the question statewide. The idea passed in every Wisconsin county but languished until the Manitowoc County Fish and Game Protective Association mentioned it to Jacque last year.
The bill would strip woodchucks of their protected status and establish a season that would run from March 1 through Dec. 31. People with a small game or trapping license would be allowed to take an unlimited number. Iowa, Michigan and Illinois all have woodchuck seasons and Craven, the UW-Madison ecologist, said a Wisconsin season probably wouldn't hurt the state's overall woodchuck population. He said property owners' kills haven't affected the population and he doubts there'll be much interest in a season.
"I hate to see the public perception be hunting means less of something, because it does not," Craven said. "Some of our most abundant species, like whitetail deer, are game species."
Jacque hasn't formally introduced the bill, but he already has bipartisan support. Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, a Democrat who lives on a farm in Alma, has signed on as a co-sponsor.
"We have a lot of problems with woodchucks that are very fat and eat a lot of our grain," Vinehout said. "I look out my bedroom window every morning and see those guys running around. They're very fat and very happy. This (bill) would allow the neighbor boy to come over and shoot them and solve a small problem on the farm."
Republican leaders have been noncommittal on the measure. Asked about the bill's chances, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, said the bill was still being reviewed. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn't return a message. A spokesman for Republican Gov. Scott Walker said the governor would review the bill if it reaches his desk.
Jimmy the Groundhog's owner, Gerald Hahn, blasted the bill. He said he hunts deer and pheasants but believes outdoorsmen already have enough targets.
"I think we've gone just kind of goofy," Hahn said. "I don't see any more groundhogs today than I did before. They do some damage, but then a lot of animals do. I know how lovable they can be. The little ones are just the cutest things in the world."