Minnesota legislators doubled what boat owners must pay to help protect state waters against invasive species, and all taxpayers will join the fight against chronic wasting disease under the new fish and game bill expected to be signed by Gov. Tim Walz.
The two problems compelled unprecedented spending and new regulations to protect deer, lakes, tourism and human health.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Sarah Strommen said the Legislature’s heightened awareness of CWD, in particular, was heartening. For the first time, the fish and game bill includes a general fund appropriation — $1.87 million — to help guard the state’s priceless whitetails against a disease akin to mad cow in cattle.
“It’s a public problem that the state as a whole shares,” Strommen said.
Walz proposed millions more in general fund money to boost the DNR’s CWD response efforts, but lawmakers instead tapped the DNR’s central Game & Fish Fund for the extra $2.85 million.
To strengthen the DNR’s fight against zebra mussels, starry stonewort algae and other aquatic invasive species (AIS), the House and Senate raised the AIS boat licensing surcharge from $5 to $10.60.
Strommen said the funding boost will extend the DNR’s lakeside inspection program, reinstate local grants to AIS partners and fortify the Minnesota Aquatic Invasive Species Research Center. Also to the DNR’s liking, an attempt by certain legislators to expand a controversial AIS inspection program in Wright County failed.
Described by Republicans and Democrats alike as a rangy piece of legislation, the overall bill moved the state forward on natural resources issues big and small. It also will be remembered for what it blocked.
Lawmakers rejected the “bobber bill,” an amendment that sought two-line fishing statewide; dumped language that would have prohibited future wolf hunting; denied further restrictions on the use of lead ammunition; said “no” to all-terrain vehicles in state parks and balked at the idea of importing spottail shiner minnows from Arkansas.
“Considering we had divided government, we got a lot done,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul.
The legislation creates a “No Child Left Inside” program, provides $1 million to address the emerald ash borer infestation, allows leashed dogs to track big game, permits coyote or fox hunters to use night vision equipment, allows for small gauge shotguns to hunt turkeys, funds improvements to motorized trails, raises ski trail fees to improve grooming, gives $1.6 million to metro parks, makes it easier for trappers and communities to deal with beaver damage, provides shooting range grants and establishes the rusty patched bumblebee as the official state bee.
“There was plenty to go around,” said Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point.
She and others hailed the Legislature for not hijacking millions of dollars in outdoors grant money from state lottery proceeds. Instead — unlike previous sessions — those funds will be spent entirely as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Ruud said.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said the House and Senate “did a lot of good things” with the bill.
Her “No Child Left Inside” initiative provides at least $700,000 in grant money for high school fishing, youth shooting sports, firearms safety and in-school hunting and fishing instruction.
She also was at the center of discussions to get tough on Minnesota’s 373 state-regulated deer farms. She came away with a few changes, but fewer than she and many deer hunters wanted.
“Getting anything across the finish line can be very difficult,” she said. “This gives us an acceptable starting place for addressing chronic wasting disease.”
Overseen as livestock by the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the captive animals have been tied to CWD outbreaks in wild deer around the country. In Minnesota, DNR officials blamed a CWD-infected deer ranch in Crow Wing County for spreading the disease to a wild deer found dead nearby.
Becker-Finn helped pass language that will require any Minnesota deer farm to kill its entire herd when a member of the herd tests positive for CWD. In the Crow Wing example, CWD festered inside the fence for two years before the herd was euthanized.
The new legislation also requires deer farm entry areas to have escape-resistant double gates. Annual inspections of each Minnesota deer farm will be mandatory under the new law and inspection fees were raised. In addition, there will be quarterly public reports on all aspects of the CWD fight.
Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, called the changes “a small step forward on the CWD front.” He was disappointed that more general fund money was not appropriated. Since 2003, the DNR’s anti-CWD campaign has drained the agency’s Game & Fish Fund of more than $8.4 million, he said.
On the plus side, Engwall said, the new legislation funds University of Minnesota research aimed at discovering a post-mortem CWD field test for hunters to check their kill. The bill also creates an “Adopt a Dumpster” program for free deer carcass disposal in CWD-endemic areas.