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Preparing for the deer hunt in Wisconsin

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Wisconsin's firearms deer season opens the weekend before Thanksgiving. As many as 10,000 of Wisconsin's 50,000 Hmong residents take part in the hunt. (Image courtesy of the Wisconsin DNR)
There's a new message on some Wisconsin radio stations this fall, asking hunters to be courteous and respectful. Last year, a dispute over a trespass escalated to a shooting that left six hunters dead. A jury convicted Chai Soua Vang of first degree murder. He'll be sentenced Tuesday. Authorities say the incident was an anomaly. But they say there's been a trend of less land open to hunting, and rapidly changing property lines that can lead to confusion -- and conflicts.

Spooner, Wis. — Tim and Brenda Rouzer live in Cumberland, Wisconsin, about an hour's drive from the Twin Cities. They're seeing the region's wooded and recreational properties turned over at an incredible pace, including property once open to hunters.

Tim Rouzer says you used to be able to deer hunt on your neighbor's property without even asking. But that's changed now, since often you don't know your neighbors.

"You never had to even hardly ask your neighbor. You could go over and hunt on his land," says Rouzer. "You could get in big trouble now if you go over. Because, sometimes you don't know who it is even. You never see them up there."

It's happening across the north woods. People are buying land for personal recreation, retirement, and vacation homes, often within easy reach of large cities.

"Land use patterns in the state of Wisconsin are changing rapidly," says Mike Bartz, chief warden for the Department of Natural Resources in Spooner, Wisconsin.

In less than a decade, Bartz says, Wisconsin has lost more than one-fourth of its farms. Many are being broken up and parceled off.

"What might have been a 240-acre farm with one contiguous owner, that a hunter would develop a relationship with and know where the property lines are," Bartz says, "now that same hunter might have to get access and permission to hunt, and have to know where the new property lines are. So, it becomes much more complex."

Accomplished hunters respect the rights of landowners, and ask permission before they hunt.
- Wisconsin DNR public service announcement

It's now more likely hunters will stumble onto the wrong property. That's what happened last year when Chai Vang found himself in privately owned woods in Sawyer County.

Vang says he was lost, and climbed a deer stand to get his bearings. He was confronted by angry property owners and a hunting party. Vang opened fire on the men, killing six and wounding two. In September Vang was found guilty and now faces multiple life sentences.

The crime was neither typical nor predictable, but it highlights a growing problem. Wisconsin DNR's Chief Wardent Randy Stark says the woods are getting crowded.

"We have basically more people living out in the area where people hunt, and that sets up a potential for conflict," Stark says.

Property lines are often poorly marked, if marked at all.

"We had been noticing these trends for several years, I guess the last two or three years in particular, coming from different corners of the state," says Stark. "The wardens would report in their deer season report they were seeing more and more of these issues, because of the changing nature of the rural landscape."

DNR officials say there's not much they could have done to prevent last year's shooting, but they do want to head off more problems. This fall, they've produced a series of public service announcements that are running on Wisconsin radio stations, encouraging hunters to behave.

Warden Stark's voice can be heard in one.

"Accomplished hunters respect the rights of landowners, and ask permission before they hunt," Stark says in the recorded message. "And accomplished hunters pass these lessons on to future generations."

Before Chai Vang opened fire, he was insulted with racial epithets. Vang is Hmong. Some 10,000 Hmong hunt Wisconsin's woods. One announcement says hunters should greet and show respect to hunters of another culture.

"We're trying to do some educational type things, just to create some awareness, and again to ease tensions," says warden Mike Bartz says. "They say that whatever is predictable is preventable."

No one expects a repeat of last year's shootings. But Bartz worries about hard feelings.

"I think we'd be burying our heads in the sand if we said there weren't any increased tensions. I think there are. I think that's human nature," says Bartz. "I think through a cool, calm approach to conflict resolution -- and that's kind of what we're preaching -- we can get through these things."

The announcements began airing several weeks ago. Some have been translated into Hmong.

Wisconsin's gun deer season opens Nov. 19 and runs for nine days.