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Wisconsin Spotlight | June 18, 2020

MADISON — A lot of liberties have been lost in the great pandemic scare of 2020. Among them, the time-honored, sacred, and constitutionally protected right of hunting. 

On Wednesday, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty filed a lawsuit alleging the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources “illegally canceled” in-person hunter safety courses. 

The Milwaukee-based public interest law firm is representing Hunter Nation, a Kansas-based, education-focused nonprofit dedicated to, among other things, promoting the right to hunt and encouraging future generations to carry on the great American tradition of hunting. 

WILL also is representing Luke Hilgemann, a Wisconsin resident and president and CEO of Hunter Nation Inc. He formerly served as chief executive officer of Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which advocates for lower taxes and limited government. 

“Hunter Nation stands ready to protect and defend our hunting rights and heritage against all threats,” Hilgemann said “in a statement. 

The lawsuit, filed in Marathon County Circuit Court, arose out of the publicity surrounding the DNR’s controversial order canceling an in-person hunter education course scheduled for June 22 in Oneida County. 

That puts aspiring hunters in a difficult position. In accordance with state law, all Wisconsin hunters born after Jan. 1, 1973 must take a hunter education course before obtaining a hunting license — through the DNR. 

Not only did the agency ban in-person hunter education courses, in true bureaucratic fashion it said it will not issue certificates to anyone who completes such in-person courses. 

“In light of COVID 19 and the (Evers’) Safer at Home order, all DNR sponsored in-person recreational safety classes and R3 events are canceled for the duration of the public health emergency,” DNR’s ‘Go Wild’ website states.

Sara Hoye, the DNR’s communications director, said the agency does not have a comment on the lawsuit. She did reiterate that the DNR temporarily suspended all in-person safety classes following the March stay-at-home orders. The DNR’s first priority, Hoye said, is safety.   

“That includes not only providing educational safety courses for hunting, boating, and off-highway vehicles, but also ensuring the students and instructors who participate are as safe as possible from exposure to COVID-19,” the DNR official told Empower Wisconsin in a statement. 

DNR hopes to be able to resume in-person classes “as soon as possible,” Hoye said. 

WILL’s lawsuit contends the agency’s policy violates a number of laws and rights, chiefly that the DNR lacks the authority to unilaterally eliminate in-person hunter education courses. Even if it had such authority, it would still have to follow the rulemaking process laid out in state law. And DNR’s policy cannot rely on Evers’ lockdown, which was overturned last month by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. 

Most important, Wisconsin’s constitution guarantees a “right to hunt.” WILL asserts DNR’s policy violates the constitution by “imposing unjustified burdens on Wisconsinites seeking to legally exercise their right.”

“The DNR’s decision to cancel all in-person hunter education courses occurred without justification or public input. Unfortunately, this is just another example of Evers administration agencies illegally creating, adopting, and enforcing policy,” said Lucas Vebber, WILL’s deputy legal counsel, in a statement. 

“We thank the team at Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty for partnering with us to pursue legal action against the Department of Natural Resources for a clear violation of our constitutionally protected right to hunt by canceling hunter education courses that are required for new hunters to take up the sport and pursue our outdoor traditions,” Hilgemann added. 

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