The United Sportsmen of Wisconsin could be awarded the new $500,000 Sporting Heritage Grant even as critics say the group doesn't meet all the criteria laid out by legislators.
One of many groups opposing Thursday's decision, the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said it supports the concept of the grant but not the process that reeks of cronyism.
"By writing extremely narrow grant guidelines and failing to advertise its existence, the state legislature is attempting to buffalo the many authentic hunting organizations in our state for the benefit of a single political front group," the League said in a prepared statement prior to a committee's 4-1 vote Thursday to approve the application.
The League said the USW lacked a demonstrated history, network and experience in working with Wisconsin hunters "doing outdoor education, recruitment and retention of sportsmen and women," which was the stated intent of the grant.
"It is not too much to ask that any organization receiving half a million dollars from taxpayers each biennium in perpetuity have the infrastructure and proven expertise to accomplish the stated goal of the grant," the League stated.
Representatives of a number of state organizations, including Whitetails Unlimited's president Jeff Schinkten of Sturgeon Bay, expressed concerns about the application process and the criteria excluding many of the very groups that have donated millions of dollars in combined manpower and money to DNR programs and projects through the years.
"Like Mark (LaBarbera) said, this doesn't seem to pass the sniff test," said Schinkten. He was talking about the lone member of the Sporting Heritage Grant Committee to vote no on accepting the USW's application.
Other committee members included DNR executive assistant and former lawmaker Scott Gunderson; Rep. Al Ott, R-Forest Junction; Sen. Neal Kedzie, R-Elkhorn; and Bill Torhorst of Oregon, the governor's appointee to the Sporting Heritage Council and a hunting friend of Kedzie's.
Larry Bonde of Kiel, vice chairman of the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, said the Manitowoc County Fish and Game Protective Association - a county alliance of 22 clubs with more than 2,200 paying members - went on record opposing any grant going to the United Sportsmen.
Bonde said the group was asking for a further review of the application process, the stipulations of who can apply and a complete and thorough review of all groups applying.
DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said since this was a legislative initiative, she was required to carry it out based upon the direction given in the law.
After the hearing, she asked DNR legal staff to investigate and determine whether the requirements had been met and whether she had any discretion to not approve the application.
The conclusion reached is that since the group met the minimum eligibility requirements - something many critics say is impossible given their lack of track record - the law indicates "that the Department shall provide one grant ... to a nonprofit" within 60 days of the effective date.
LaBarbera said the appearance and perception of what is happening doesn't sit well with many state groups.
Stepp said the DNR has a myriad of partners in conservation efforts around the state, and wants to continue to grow its relationships.
My take? It was very poorly handled by legislators who slipped it into the budget and kept the DNR from putting out its usual news releases on major grant applications.
Still, there's hope that the grant - if indeed awarded after the dust settles - will be used for promotion of hunting, fishing and the shooting sports and include some of the very organizations that feel like they were stabbed in the back.
One USW member, Tom Kleiman of Accurate Marine and Storage in Kewaunee, says he hates the political side of it and just wants to be able to see the group work on projects and programs designed to attract and retain hunters, anglers and shooters.
With opening day just two weeks off, now's the time to make sure all the deer gear is in good working order. Does your bow need a little pre-hunt work? How about your shooting eye and muscles used to draw and hold the bow?
Practice until you can regularly put all your shots into the proverbial pie plate. After that, try the one-shot challenge: one shot a day at various ranges and angles. If you consistently drill it, you're likely ready. If you don't, it's back to the drawing board and a lot more arrows.
Meanwhile, Sunday is opening day of the early September Canada goose hunt and the mourning dove season. There's a liberal five-bird daily bag limit on geese, but make sure you're properly licensed, shooting nontoxic shot and following all other regulations.