Points North: From Moose to Mussels, Landwehr Has Work To Do

Moose (by Douglas Brown on Flickr)
Moose (by Douglas Brown on Flickr)

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Two ardent pheasant hunters told me about a post-Christmas hunt in western Minnesota cattail marshes during a hallway break at the 2011 DNR Roundtable held last week. Defying deep snow and thin ice, DNR fish and wildlife director Dave Schad, and Chuck Kartak, who recently retired from a state parks career, said they donned chest waders to negotiate the sloughs, breaking through the ice “about 30 times” into waist-deep swamp water. They even flushed a few pheasants to boot. What they didn’t mention was whether their hunting buddy Tom Landwehr came along on this end-of the-season hunt.

Landwehr, who Governor Mark Dayton appointed as the DNR commissioner last week, was also at the Roundtable. Lest anyone is wondering, there is no question about his hunting and fishing credentials. Whether or not he was along on the above-mentioned pheasant hunt, Landwehr is an avid outdoorsman. Among his first orders of business was appointing Schad as deputy commissioner.

At the Roundtable, Landwehr was among friends—the members of fishing and hunting organizations, politicians and natural resource professionals who gather every January to discuss fish and wildlife policies and politics. Everyone I spoke with at the event was upbeat about his appointment. Some had even lobbied on Landwehr’s behalf with the governor’s transition team prior to the appointment.

The DNR commissioner selection was a bit of a contest. Northern politicians favored Rod Skoe, a state senator from northwestern Minnesota who by most accounts is a good guy with a limited background in natural resources. Roundtable hearsay was that Dayton had promised northern power brokers that he’d appoint one of their own, such as Skoe, to the DNR post. However, the governor also made a campaign promise to the conservation community that he would appoint a natural resources professional to lead the DNR—someone like Landwehr, who has spent a career working for DNR Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited and, most recently, the Minnesota Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. As for the contest, when conservationists weighed in with the governor’s office, Landwehr got the job.

A similar dust-up occurred at the start of Pawlenty administration, when timber interests wanted Mark Holsten rather than Gene Merriam, who they perceived as “too green.” As it turned out, both men served ably as commissioner under Pawlenty. Due to his time at The Nature Conservancy, some in the north may perceive Landwehr as “too green” as well, though I suspect they will find he is a fair-minded leader—which is what a DNR commissioner ought to be.

While Landwehr’s appointment was a popular topic of hallway discussions, it was a small part of what went on at the Roundtable. DNR Wildlife, Fisheries and Ecological Services staff gave presentations about natural resource issues and management. I spent most of my time listening to wildlife presentations, since there were an encouraging number of northern topics on the agenda. Unfortunately, the DNR provided no new information about the topic I found most interesting—how the DNR intends to manage its dwindling moose herd.

Wildlife chief Dennis Simon said he took full responsibility for the slow development of the moose management plan, now two years in the making. According to Simon, a finalized draft will be available “in the next month or so.” It should be noted the DNR made a similar promise about the moose plan at the Roundtable last year.

Somewhat disconcerting were a couple of comments by DNR wildlife officials regarding moose. Simon said moose management has a “social science component” which includes questions about who values moose and who will pay for their management. This suggests the agency may be reluctant to get serious about moose unless there is a hunting license revenue stream to pay the freight. Another staffer made the cryptic comment that managing for moose “may come at the expense of deer.” Perhaps the attitude about moose was unintentionally summed up by a roundtable participant who said, “Enough about moose, let’s talk about ducks.”

Fortunately, there was more to discuss than just ducks. Officials talked about a new focus on the state’s forest game birds—ruffed, sharp-tailed and spruce grouse, as well as American woodcock. Minnesota contains more publicly owned forestland than any other state and has unrivalled hunting for ruffed grouse. While our forests are primarily managed with commercially motivated harvests, logging creates habitat for grouse and may other forest species. The DNR wants to maintain forest wildlife habitat and grouse populations, and thereby sustain hunter interest in grouse hunting.

DNR big game specialist Lou Cornicelli gave a fun and interesting presentation on the current status of white-tailed deer management. For starters, he said the new phone and online deer harvest registration option are extremely popular with hunters. He also reported that since 2005, statewide deer numbers have been reduced to meet deer management goals, leading to lower annual harvests. He thinks the 2010 kill of about 210,000 whitetails may be the “sweet spot” in the harvest—an indication that we have enough deer, from a statewide perspective, rather than too many of them.

The best presentation was made by angling advocate and fisheries biologist Dick Sternberg, who warned that the nonnative zebra mussels now invading the state’s inland lakes could rapidly destroy aquatic ecosystems. Sport and commercial fisheries in some of the Great Lakes have experienced precipitous declines as invasive zebra and closely related quagga mussels overwhelmed the environment and disrupted the food chain.

Sternberg worries the same situation may occur in Minnesota inland lakes where zebra mussels recently appeared. He showed slides taken at Pelican Lake in Ottertail County, where docks are completely encrusted by the tiny vermin just one year after they were discovered there. Zebra mussels not only cover inanimate objects such as docks, rocks and other structure, they also attach to living things. Sternberg showed slides of aquatic plants, native clams, crayfish and dragonfly nymphs encrusted with zebra mussels.

Because they feed by filtering water through their bodies, zebra mussels eliminate tiny organisms and thus destroy the base of the food chain. They eat beneficial green algae, promoting the proliferation of harmful blue-green algae and sets off an ugly chain of events. The blue-green algae dies, sinks to the bottom and is consumed by baitfish, which are paralyzed by the toxins it contains. The sickened baitfish are then consumed by fish-eating birds, such as loons. Since 1999, 75,000 fish-eating birds, including 9,000 loons, have been killed by zebra mussel-induced avian botulism across the Great Lakes.

Zebra and quagga mussel infestations have led to great reductions in fish abundance in lakes Huron and Michigan. Alewives, an invasive baitfish so prolific during the 1960s that Pacific salmon were stocked in the Great Lakes to control their numbers, have disappeared in Lake Huron. The commercial whitefish harvest on Lake Michigan has declined 70 percent and the remaining whitefish are small and undernourished. The proliferation of blue-green algae in Lake Erie is thought to have led to rising phosphate and nitrogen levels. Once regarded as the walleye capitol of the world, Erie may now lose that title as its once-abundant walleye population plummets in a negative response to the changing water chemistry. Sternberg’s presentation was alarming, because Minnesota is not prepared to address a worst-case scenario regarding zebra mussels. Lakes infested with mussels may not be desirable for fishing, swimming or other recreation, which could lead to declining property values for lake homes and cabins.

By the end of the Roundtable, it was apparent Commissioner Landwehr has his work cut out for him. The state’s responses to invading mussels, declining moose, and a host of other natural resource issues are now in his hands. While it is unrealistic to expect miracles in a state strapped with a $6 billion deficit, Landwehr’s professional experience in conservation should serve him, and his fellow Minnesotans, well.

Airdate: January 14, 2011

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