Hunters should see more and better wildlife habitat around Minnesota following a reorganization of key portions of the Department of Natural Resources section of wildlife, DNR officials say.
"I'm convinced we'll put more habitat on the ground, and higher quality habitat, than ever before,'' said Dennis Simon, DNR wildlife chief.
Sparked primarily by the influx of money from the Legacy Amendment, the agency has realigned its forest, wetland and prairie-farmland habitat programs and put those under a single manager, Bob Welsh, a former assistant regional wildlife manager. Welsh will work with the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to help secure habitat projects.
"I want Bob to be the face and voice of habitat for Minnesota,'' Simon said.
Simon said Welsh will identify habitat improvement opportunities and turn them into realities that benefit hunters and others.
"I really want us to refocus our energy and talent on habitat implementation,'' he said.
Previously, habitat management was dispersed among different employees in the wildlife section, Simon said. Thus habitat projects were too often put on the back burner as staff focused on the more immediate needs of setting seasons, conducting surveys, implementing legislation or preventing the spread of bovine TB and chronic wasting disease.
For example, Simon said, Bill Penning, the farmland wildlife program leader, was given additional responsibilities for wild turkey, mourning dove, prairie chicken and sandhill crane hunting seasons.
"He was spending more time on season issues and less time on habitat,'' Simon said.
The agency has been downsized because of budget cuts in recent years, and wildlife is down 20 positions, Simon said. "The reality is we're going to be a smaller agency,'' he said. Meanwhile, there's been an infusion of dollars from the Legacy Amendment. Wildlife has received $8 million to $14 million annually the past couple of years in Legacy Amendment grants, and applying for and processing those grants takes time and effort.
"We were just barely keeping our nose above water,'' Simon said.
The reorganized section should help greatly, he said.
As wildlife habitat program manager, Welsh will oversee three teams:
• A prairie habitat team led by Penning that will focus on agricultural-related issues; the state's new hunter Walk-In Area program; prairie habitat research and assessment; and partnerships that result in large blocks of habitat by coordinating state, federal and nonprofit conservation.
• A wetland habitat team that will work with Ducks Unlimited and others to manage projects related to wild rice, shallow lakes, seasonal wetlands, wetland-grassland complexes and providing technical advice to private landowners. A team leader will be appointed soon.
• A forest wildlife habitat team led by Cynthia Osmundson that will focus on the habitat needs of deer, moose and other forest species. It will be composed of forest-wildlife habitat coordinators, a ruffed grouse coordinator, a habitat assessment specialist and others.
Will hunters notice the changes?
"Yes, they will. No question,'' Simon said.
"They will notice decidedly improved habitat on our WMAs [wildlife management areas]. We're going to intensively manage shallow basins on private and public lands'' to make them more productive for waterfowl, he said. "It will be less visible in the forest because we still do most of our habitat management through commercial timber harvest.''