Conservation Public Lands & Waters

Debate: ATVs on Public Hunting Land

Tony Hansen Avatar

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I own an ATV. It has proven to be one of the most useful tools I’ve purchased in recent years.

It wasn’t so long ago, back when I used to spend a week every November hunting deer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (a time when there were deer to hunt in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), that I would have scoffed at the notion of owning an ATV for hunting purposes.

See, I had no exposure to the machines outside of the guys I’d see hauling loads of apples, carrots, and sugar beets to deer shacks scattered throughout the Ottawa National Forest.

For those of you who are careful readers, you’ll notice that I mentioned seeing these guys using their ATVs on National Forest lands to haul bait to their hunting sites.

And you must be asking: “Is that legal?”

The answer is “no.” It’s not – at least not outside of designated trails. Hence my disdain for the cheaters and the steeds they rode in on.

But it was a summarily unfair portrayal of the machine. An ATV is a glorious tool in the right hands. Much in the same manner as any other tool — be it a firearm, welder, or shot glass. In the wrong hands, each can have unsavory results.

Since I’ve owned an ATV, I’ve been able to do a lot of tasks far more efficiently than before. I obey the laws, stay on designated trails and have changed my tune. And, yeah, I like just riding it around from time to time even if there isn’t any real work to be done.

In Wisconsin, there is an interesting debate being had that cuts to the core of the ATV issue: What should be done with more than 3,800 acres of land that’s being given to the state and will be managed by the Department of Natural Resources as the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.

Obviously, I’d love to see the bulk — if not all — of that land devoted to hunting and fishing access. The land is located in Sauk County which offers some exceptional deer and upland bird hunting.

The DNR called for public comment on how the land should best be used and received some 2,000 responses. You can read the comments here. The responses are incredibly diverse and many of them oppose the inclusion of ATV trails and a gun range – both items that were added for consideration fairly late in the planning process.

I’ll be honest, I’m on the fence with this one.

I’m a hunter. And I spend an awful lot of time fretting about my future. I don’t own a ton of land. In fact, I own just 17 acres near my home in southern Michigan. I choose to spend my money on things like college funds, the mortgage, and family needs rather than guides and outfitters.

I want to kill a few big whitetails each fall. And I know I’ll likely need to hunt public land.

But am I not being selfish if I insist that every single acre of available public lands be devoted only and specifically to those outdoor activities that I deem desirable?

I have absolutely no use for horses. I can’t imagine why we should devote any amount of land to bridle trails. And yet, I know a fair numbers of hunters reading this entry spend time in Open Country via horseback as they head up the mountain in search of big game.

I realize the trails being proposed in Wisconsin are not meant to be mere access paths for hunters who use ATVs. They are trails for ATV touring, dirt bikes and the like. I get it.

But I also understand this: Few of us are singular in our outdoor passions. Yes, I love to hunt deer. It is – by far – my primary hunting interest. But I also love to fish for smallmouth. And hunt turkeys.

I’d wager that a large number of ATV riders are also hunters and anglers. And folks in need of a good shooting range are probably the same folks buying hunting and fishing licenses.

As we’ve talked about often here, public land is a precious commodity that should be available for all.

What do you think? Should Wisconsin make some room for a gun range and ATV trails? Or are those uses simply not compatible with the parcel in question?