U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe was in Minneapolis over the weekend to speak at Pheasants Forever's National Pheasant Fest. The 56-year-old Ashe, who oversees 10,000 employees and a $2.5 billion budget, covered many subjects with the Star Tribune:

Q Can the agency defend the lawsuit filed against it for delisting the wolf in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan from the Endangered Species List?

A I'm confident we can. The wolf population has more than recovered. We have a robust population in the Great Lakes states.

Q Will we get a federal farm bill with conservation provisions to help stem the loss of wildlife habitat, particularly in the Midwest?

A We can't conserve waterfowl habitat today, and certainly not tomorrow, without a farm bill with strong conservation provisions. I'm optimistic we'll get one.

Q The loss of millions of federal Conservation Reserve Program acres -- and with them wildlife habitat -- has left some wondering if the good old days of bird hunting are gone.

A I was in South Dakota hunting this fall, and everywhere we went they were putting in [drain] tile. The landscape is changing. If we don't do something, the good old days will be gone. It's up to us. We have to have the will to make a difference.

Q Some have questioned whether the temporary nature of CRP makes sense.

A If we as a country aren't going to maintain that investment over time, then we need to look at a different model.

Q What's the effect of farmers' federal crop insurance on conservation and the loss of habitat?

A Increasingly we're learning crop insurance is driving land conversion. That's something that needs to be addressed in a farm bill.

Q We've had years of liberal duck seasons, despite concerns in some areas whether ducks are abundant enough to warrant them. Do you see any indications that might change, or will we have liberal seasons forever?

A We've had a long string of very productive years for waterfowl. This past year, we had drought, but an abundance of rain came at the right time, and we had good production. Now we're seeing more drought. Could I envision a situation in the next year or two where we'd have more restrictive seasons? I could. What we are seeing happen on the prairies is cause for concern.

Q How worried are you about the loss of waterfowl hunters nationwide?

A We are concerned, though the national hunting and fishing survey we released recently was good news. Hunting participation was up 9 percent. I attribute that to a breadth of efforts we've undertaken. But are we concerned? Yes. Hunting is still overwhelmingly male and white. We have to think about how to broaden participation.

Q There have been proposals for years, supported overwhelmingly by hunters, to raise the price of the federal duck stamp. But Congress won't act. Will it happen?

A Everyone does support the increase in the duck stamp. Yet we can't get Congress to enact it. The Sportsmen's Bill was an extension of that; we had the entire [conservation] community support that bill, yet we can't get it passed. We need to ask ourselves, how can that be? If we can't get the easy stuff done, how do we get the hard stuff done?

Q How important are ducks and duck habitat to the Fish and Wildlife Service?

A We have 565 refuges; our refuge system is more than a third of our operating budget. That system was built to conserve waterfowl. There's not a lot we do that doesn't touch waterfowl.

Q Tell us what you like to hunt.

A I'm a bird hunter. I hunt doves, pheasants and quail. I also have a yellow Lab and a boat, and we hunt the Potomac River early for wood ducks. Later in the season we hunt the Eastern Shore of Maryland for widgeon, gadwall and pintail. The last three or four years haven't been good.