Wis. takes steps to ease tensions between white and Hmong hunters

(AP) Eric Humbert, a hunter for 20 years, sees new faces in the woods - more Hmong hunters, more Hispanics. He senses new tensions, too, as another deer hunt approaches and he wants to do his part to ease them.

So the Waupaca County sportsman started a business - Ezotic Hunting Signs - making "no hunting" signs printed in English and Hmong.

It's a little thing, Humbert insists, but maybe a step toward racial harmony among Hmong and white hunters after two confrontations that killed seven hunters and sent two more to prison.

"I am not saying my signs are going to totally eliminate the problem," the 32-year-old entrepreneur said. "I am saying it is a tool to help bridge that barrier and help communications."

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The state Department of Natural Resources also recognizes the tensions and is working to help Hmong hunters get more involved with traditional, white-dominated outdoor groups, such as the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation.

Wisconsin's nine-day, tradition-steeped deer hunt starts Saturday, with 650,000 gun-toting hunters stalking a whitetail herd estimated at about 1.8 million.

The Wildlife Federation has no Hmong members, executive director George Meyer said. He knows of no Hmong in any of Wisconsin's traditional hunting, fishing or conservation clubs.

"That really says a lot about the need to break down some barriers," Meyer said. "There is a lot of misunderstandings on both sides."

That may be changing:

-There's talk of Hmong forming a conservation group.

-The DNR recently set up a booth at Hmong New Year's festival in Green Bay.

-The Wisconsin Hmong Conference hosted a workshop with presentations by traditional outdoor groups. More than 150 Hmong leaders, professionals and community members attended, said Peter Yang, executive director of the Hmong Association in Wausau.

-The DNR's booth at the conference had a poster with three people asking, "How may I help you?" including one speaking Hmong

- "Kuv pab koj tau licas?" and one Spanish - "Como puedo ayudarle?"

"I think most hunters, Hmong or non-Hmong, probably don't know much about each other at all," Yang said. "Unfortunately, the two incidents that took place kind of lead people to have a more open dialogue."

James Nichols, a 29-year-old, one-time logger, awaits sentencing for the shooting and stabbing death of Cha Vang, 30, of Green Bay, a fellow squirrel hunter whose body was found Jan. 6 in a wildlife refuge near Peshtigo.

A jury convicted Nichols of second-degree intentional homicide. Nichols claimed he acted in self-defense after Vang, a recent refugee from Thailand who spoke little English, shot him first after a chance encounter. Nichols faces up to 60 years in prison on the murder charge when he is sentenced Nov. 28.

Nichols' conviction came nearly three years after the murders of six white deer hunters by a Hmong hunter in northwest Wisconsin following an angry, racially charged confrontation about trespassing. Chai Soua Vang of St. Paul, Minn. - no relation to Cha Vang - is serving multiple life prison sentences.

The Hmong are an ethnic group that immigrated from Southeast Asia to the Midwest in large numbers after the Vietnam War as political refugees. Hunting and fishing were part of their day-to-day existence.

Wisconsin has about 35,000 Hmong. It's unknown how many hunt and fish because the state keeps no license records by race.

Ron Kazmierczak, director of the DNR's 16-county northeast region in Green Bay, said he knows some Hmong hunters fear going into the woods and "that is not right."

"We believe many (Hmong) people have actually stopped purchasing licenses," Yang said.

Thai Vue, a Hmong leader in La Crosse, said he will continue hunting. Over 20 years, he's experienced more good than hatred in the woods, he said. "That is the attitude I have."

Sue Bartel, manager of Royalton Station, a gas and convenience store in Waupaca County, said her store has sold a few of Humbert's signs. "People do like them because they don't want people on their land."

But Meyer, a former DNR secretary, calls the concept misguided because 99.99 percent of the signs in the woods won't be in Hmong.

Far better would be teaching Hmong hunters to read basic hunting signs like no trespassing, Meyer said.

The DNR's new initiative - dubbed harmony in the woods by some - is designed to get more Hmong hunter safety instructors and focus on new topics, such as map reading, that may help avoid confrontations and address cultural issues, Kazmierczak said.

"What we learned is the Hmong don't understand why we have conservation rules like we do," he said.

Hmong groups have provided more background on their history that hunting and fishing clubs can have, he said.

Getting Hmong and whites to focus on things that unite them started with a two-day retreat in July that brought together about 30 leaders from both Hmong and traditional outdoor groups, said Randy Stark, the DNR's chief warden in Madison.

It amounted to a cultural exchange. What was life like in Laos? How did they hunt? "The Hmong cooked a real nice dinner," Stark said.

For the first time this fall, the DNR's booklet with deer hunting guidelines will have some regulations in Hmong and Spanish, Stark said.

Humbert knows about racial tension in the woods. He felt it in encountering a lone Hmong squirrel hunter recently on public land.

"I was nervous," the sign-maker said, "just because of the fact of the problems we have had. He did speak a little broken English. There was nothing negative about our chance meeting. It just happened."