Points North: DNR Roundtable Checks the Pulse of Outdoor Issues

Tom Melius talks with MN DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr
Tom Melius talks with MN DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr

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For more than 20 years, the Minnesota DNR has kicked off the New Year by hosting a Roundtable for groups and individuals interested in fishing, hunting and conservation. For years, the event was intentionally held outstate in St. Cloud, but it was moved to a metro location a few years ago. This year, for the first time, the Roundtable was held in St. Paul, just a stone’s throw from the DNR’s central offices and the State Capitol.

The tone and content of the Roundtable vary somewhat from year to year, but it is fair to say the event is a finger on the political pulse of Minnesota outdoor issues. The big news at last weekend’s Roundtable was the announcement of a new wolf hunting and trapping season beginning this year. After nearly four decades of federal protection, Minnesota wolves are scheduled to be removed from the Endangered Species List on January 27.

DNR officials provided sketchy details about the wolf season at the press conference held during the Roundtable. The season likely will be concurrent with the existing late November through early January season for bobcats, which occurs when the pelts of furbearing animals are prime. Successful trappers and hunters will have to register the wolves they kill. Initially, the DNR intends to set a conservative harvest quota, with higher harvests allowed in portions of the state where livestock depredation occurs.

The wolf season, which is traveling on an unusually quick trajectory for the DNR Division of Wildlife, is apparently driven to some extent by forces outside the agency. Later, during another session, DNR Wildlife Director Dennis Simon explained the agency had planned to be more deliberative about the wolf season, setting up a regulatory framework and then seeking legislation to open a season in 2013. However, he said, “Things have progressed more rapidly than we anticipated.” This suggests the momentum for opening a wolf season in 2012 is driven by influential legislators and the special interests who whisper sweet nothings in their ears.

Also on the news front, the DNR is ramping up enforcement of rules and regulations intended to slow the spread of aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels. The effort can be summed up as more inspections officers, more roadside checkpoints for boaters and more tickets written for the heinous crime of forgetting to remove the drain plug from your boat. In an era when the state can barely afford its bills, money apparently is available for this statewide enforcement effort, which includes 20 new “decontamination units” for mandatory boat washes at checkpoints.

The fiscal picture is less rosy for the DNR’s fish and wildlife management programs. The primary funding for those programs comes from hunting and fishing license fees, which have not increased since 2001. DNR Fisheries Director Dirk Peterson said there has been significant, ongoing attrition of field staff and fish management activities for five years. It is hard to see how downsizing at the field level can be good for Minnesota’s fish and fishing.

Sadly, Roundtable attendees were less than hopeful the Legislature will address the situation and raise license fees, even though the state’s Game and Fish Fund is projected to go into the red in 2013. In fact, frustration with the Legislature over license fees and other outdoor issues may have been running at an all-time high at this Roundtable. Usually, legislators address the Roundtable and present the agenda for the upcoming legislative session. To my knowledge, legislators did not make a presentation at this year’s event.

For many attendees, myself included, the real value of the Roundtable is the opportunity to network with DNR leaders, politicians, sportsmen activists and conservationists from across the state. Often, what you hear in the hallway is more newsy than the official proceedings. For instance, one person, whom I’ll identify only as very well-informed, was alarmed by a Wildlife presentation showing all aspects of habitat and development are on a downward trend. Apparently, most habitat work is now funded with sales tax proceeds created by the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. The individual who told me this said it is very likely the Legislature is using Legacy money to supplant traditional conservation funding--contrary to the intent of the Legacy Amendment.

Another funding issue upsetting to at least some attendees was the Legislature’s firing of Susan Thornton, executive director of the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, which distributes lottery proceeds for conservation purposes. According to some legislators, Thornton was fired because the politicians want to go a “new direction” with the funding and because she apparently ruffled the feathers of some politically influential conservation organizations that are prime recipients of these state tax dollars. Critics said the legislators did not have the authority to fire Thornton. They were somewhat vindicated when Thornton’s firing was suspended last Friday.

However, it was also clear that reinstating Thornton will not repair the political damage to the LCCMR incurred by this melodramatic debacle. Collateral damage is further distrust of the state’s conservation and environmental organizations that receive substantial LCCMR funding. As the (Minneapolis) Star-Tribune correctly pointed out in a recent editorial, conservation and environmental groups were uncharacteristically silent about Thornton’s firing.

Speaking of hallway conversations and state funding, I also learned the Legislature is likely to fund construction of a pipeline from Lake Superior to the Lutsen ski hill, eliminating the need to draw water from the Poplar River, a trout stream, for snowmaking. One reason I was told the state would fund the project is because this privately owned operation competes with two public ski hills—Duluth’s Spirit Mountain and Biwabik’s Giant’s Ridge.

All politics aside, I came away from the Roundtable with a reaffirmation that DNR staff and other conservation professionals are good people. For the first time this year, a few college students who are studying in natural resource programs were invited to the event. One of those students tagged along with me. Time and again I was impressed how DNR folks and others took the time to welcome my student friend and offer friendly advice about how to get internships and begin a natural resources career. For me, seeing their obvious passion for their work and willingness to encourage the next generation was worth the long trip from the North Shore to St. Paul.

Airdate: January 13, 2012

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service -Midwest Region via Flickr.

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