Decided to send an e-mail to the DNR trying to get some answers about the back tags and got a response from a Mr. Van Haren. It went something like this...
Your e-mail regarding back tags was forwarded to me for a reply. Being an avid archery and gun deer hunter myself for over 35 years, I do understand there can be some inconvenience associated with wearing a back tag and that many other states do not require them. Hunting deer and bear in Wisconsin however is not exactly the same as in many other states. Wisconsin has one of the highest numbers of hunters and is made up of lots of private property which continues to get divided into smaller blocks every year.
The requirement for issuing each deer hunter a back tag and that each hunter display this back tag was actually created by the Wisconsin State Legislature 68 years ago, back in 1942. It is not a DNR rule or something the DNR has authority to eliminate. The legislature later created a statutory requirement that all bear hunters also wear a back tag. The bear back tag requirement took effect for the first time just 14 years ago, during the 1998 bear season, in large part due to complaints from landowners about the problems they were having dealing with bear hunters and bear dog trainers trespassing on private lands. The primary reason for these statutory requirements has been to address landowners concerns about trespassing and to give landowners a way to identify trespassers, and not just to help assure deer hunters have a license.
Although the DNR did not create these requirements, the warden service and the law enforcement community in Wisconsin have been staunch proponents of retaining the back tag requirement for deer and bear hunters. Back tags have played an important role in the identification and apprehension of the suspects in trespassing and hunting law violations. It sounds like you are aware of one of the more notable cases which occurred in 2004, when a hunters back tag number was recorded by another hunter in a trespassing encounter that turned into 6 homicides. The recorded back tag number enabled investigators to quickly determine who the suspect was and even locate that person while still in the field some distance away still wearing the back tag.
We also feel the while not infallible, the need to display a back tag does help reduce the incidents of individuals hunting without a valid license. In the past we did change the color each year to help assure individuals were not simply displaying an expired license back tag. However, with our current Automated License Issuance System (ALIS), the paper used to print these tags is purchased though a contract with the company that operates the ALIS. To save money by not throwing out all the old/unused stock each year, we made the decision a few years ago that we could live with not changing the color ever year. It will be changed periodically, likely when we have to rebid the contract.
About 7 years ago a bill was introduced in the state legislature to eliminate back tags for deer hunting. That provision was vetoed by the Governor at that time. During this past 2009-10 legislative session, a legislator also introduce a bill which included a provision to eliminate the need for Class B bear license holders to wear a back tag when assisting a Class A bear license holder hunting for bear. The Wisconsin Sheriffs Association testified in opposition to this provision of the bill. Sheriff's felt that this is a valuable tool which assists them in enforcing the trespass laws. This back tag elimination provision of that bill was removed in a later amendment.
Having checked deer hunters in the field every year for the past 25 years I have found that with changes made to the back tags in recent years to make this tag also double as the person license has greatly reduced the time it takes to check a hunters license. No more digging through layers of clothing trying to find a small folded piece of paper, if the hunter remembers to bring the small piece of paper along. This allows hunters to get back to hunting quicker.
While the DNR can not remove the requirement that we issue back tags and that hunters must wear them, I hope I have at least been able to provide you with some further understanding as to why Wisconsin long ago decided back tags should be required and play an important role in this state.
I hope that clears some things up for you guys. I sure learned quite a bit from the correspondence.