Tool of the Week: The hypocrites at DNR

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 16, 2023

MADISON — A few years ago, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources launched an investigation the agency ridiculously dubbed “Operation Crusty Crab.

The target: Aquatic pet retailers and wholesalers accused of carrying illegal species. In many cases, the sting picked on small mom-and-pop stores like Sharon Woolhether’s Natural World Aquariums in Fond du Lac.

“It was absolutely insane. They were just rude and nasty,” the elderly store owner told Empower Wisconsin in May. “I’ve never broken any law in any way and they were horrible to me. It was like I was a mass murderer or something.”

Woolhether was accused of purchasing and possessing for sale “approximately 153 prohibited non-native crayfish from Apet Inc., between March 2017 and February 2019.”

The bigger problem, the pet store owner said, is DNR’s ever-changing regulations.

“I’ve done everything as far as trying to comply with the rules and regulations, but they keep changing them,” Woolhether said. “It’s hard to play the game when they keep changing the rules.”

Which brings us to the latest example of regulator hypocrisy.

As Empower Wisconsin first reported last week, Gov. Tony Evers’ agency failed to secure conditional use and zoning permits before starting construction on a maintenance garage (cold storage building) in Winnebago County.  

It appears the DNR initially applied for the permits but later decided they were unnecessary. The state advised that the agency had already started construction on the building without obtaining the permits, according to sources. 

The DNR could face up to $200 for each day the violation exists or continues, according to local ordinance. 

Winnebago County Executive Assistant Ethan Hollenberger said the public expects everyone to be treated the same.

“Special treatment, good ole boy clubs, and back room deals are not appropriate,” he said. “Government regulations can be onerous. It would not be right to enforce zoning rules differently…

“Typically, we seek compliance instead of citations. We expect the same result here.”

But there is a difference. Powerful taxpayer-funded state agencies have big budgets and lawyers at the ready to defend themselves. Small business owners like Woolhether don’t.

It’s not an equal system. But it appears a local government is attempting to hold accountable a state agency that behaved like just another tool of big government.

So this week the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has earned the honor of Empower Wisconsin’s Tool of the Week.

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