Conservation groups say budget cuts would be epic

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2011 - 9:33 PM
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Proud archer: Johnny Steveken, 10, of West Lakeland Township, bagged this deer last fall in Washington County -- his first time in his stand.

Federal conservation and environmental programs that affect hunters, anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts have been targeted for major budget trims in the U.S. House as Congress wrestles with the budget deficit.

But many fishing, hunting and conservation groups -- including Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Trout Unlimited -- say the proposed cuts by the Republican-controlled House are a "slash and burn" approach that threatens hunting and fishing. Forty-two conservation groups sent Congress a letter protesting the cuts, and they are urging their members to voice opposition. (Read the letter at startribune.com/cluboutdoors.)

"Conservation programs should shoulder a fair and proportionate burden of reduction to the federal deficit, but clearly that is not the case here,'' said Dave Nomsen of Pheasants Forever, based in Minnesota.

Among the proposals in the House budget bill HR1:

• Eliminate funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) grant program, which over 20 years has protected about 26 million acres of waterfowl habitat in public-private partnerships with landowners, states and groups like Pheasants Forever. Those partners matched the $1 billion in federal allocations with another $2.3 billion.

Minnesota has received about $32 million, which was matched by more than $95 million in private dollars. Nearly 100,000 acres have been protected by easements or acquisition, another 59,000 acres have been restored and 50,000 acres of habitat have been improved.

"NAWCA is a huge resource for delivering on-the-ground conservation for Minnesota,'' said Matt Holland, PF's director of conservation.

• Trims $400 million -- 90 percent -- from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which comes from offshore oil and gas royalties that, since 1964, have gone to provide recreation and protect parks, forest and wildlife areas. Supporters say the fund generates $4 in economic value for every $1 invested.

• Cuts 50,000 acres from the federal Wetland Reserve Program, which pays landowners to protect, restore and enhance wetlands. Enrollment would be capped at about 202,000 acres.

Congressional leaders are negotiating another budget extension, which includes $30 billion in cuts; the current extension ends Friday.

SE deer regs under fire

Antler-point restrictions and a ban on party hunting for bucks in southeastern Minnesota -- special regulations launched there just last fall by the Department of Natural Resources to increase the number of mature bucks -- would be scrapped under a bill in the Minnesota House.

"I would say the vast majority of hunters want to see these restrictions removed,'' said Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, author of the amendment.

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association supports removal of the restrictions.

But DNR officials said the regulations were imposed only after years of discussions and public meetings with hunters there. Surveys showed 53 percent supported protecting yearling bucks. The DNR wants to try the new regulations for at least three years and says hunters will already see more mature bucks this fall.

"A number of yearling bucks that weren't shot last fall now will be 2-year-old bucks, which should be a pretty nice bucks,'' said Ed Boggess, DNR fish and wildlife division director.

Buck harvest was down last fall, as expected because of the regulations, but Boggess said harvest should rebound this fall, "with a lot more bigger bucks.''

The House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee is expected to finish debating the issue and vote on the bill Tuesday.

The bill also: allows anglers to use two fishing lines; lifts a 20-year-old northern spearing ban on Cass Lake; removes the 16-foot height restriction for deer stands; and reduces the number of Minnesota lakes with special fishing regulations intended to boost the size of northerns -- now 125 -- to 60.

Sharpshooting ends

Federal sharpshooters have ended their effort to kill deer near Pine Island for chronic wasting disease (CWD) testing. The sharpshooters and local landowners ended up killing 752 adults and 428 fawns. Test results on 1,123 deer have come back, all negative.

The DNR had wanted to test 900 mature deer.

"Given that we haven't found any positives, I'm OK with being off 100 or so deer,'' said Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game program coordinator. He added that though no additional deer have been found with CWD, it doesn't mean no other deer have the fatal brain disease.

"This suggests we're in good shape, but we're not out of the woods,'' he said.

The DNR will do intensive surveillance of hunter-killed deer in that area this fall and will create a separate permit area.

Citizen input, or not?

Rep. Drazkowski, who co-authored a bill (HF1073) removing citizens from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and the Legislative Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources, is having second thoughts after getting an earful from constituents. "They told me that having the Legislature eliminate citizen input sends a poor message,'' Drazkowski wrote in a column on his legislative website. "After considering their input, I've determined they are absolutely right." He has removed his name from the bill. To read his column, see www.startribune.com/a285.

Did you know?

• Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall will be the keynote speaker at this year's Capital City DU Chapter dinner in St. Paul on Wednesday. Tickets are available at www.ducks.org/minnesota until Tuesday.

• Applications for this fall's bear hunt are open, but this year hunters selected in the lottery must buy their licenses by July 29, and remaining licenses will be made available to other hunters. A total of 7,050 licenses are available in 11 permit areas.

• A House-Senate conference committee is expected to begin this week trying to reach agreement on two very different bills that deal with natural resource funding and policy issues. As currently written, the DNR says budget cuts in the bills would force the agency to reduce services at 13 to 26 state parks, with five to 10 of those being mothballed.

• After years of trying, mourning dove hunting supporters in Iowa finally have legalized dove hunting there. All of the states bordering Iowa, including Minnesota, allow dove hunting. The bill flew through the Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad signed it into law.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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