The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources hopes once again this year to purchase 5,000 to 6,000 acres for the protection of water and wildlife.
In keeping with the public lands approach of Commissioner Tom Landwehr, the focus will be on prairie. Streams, rivers, lakes and groundwater in Minnesota’s farm belt will benefit along with pollinators, songbirds, waterfowl, fish and other aquatic life. The ring-necked pheasant, a vital species in the state’s outdoors heritage, also benefits.
But in an interview last week previewing DNR objectives for 2018, Landwehr said Minnesota’s pheasant range undoubtedly is sliding backward, contrary to the state’s 3-year-old plan to revive it. The biggest hope for a turnaround is revitalization of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the 2018 federal Farm Bill, he said.
“It’s just so critically important,” Landwehr said. “If no CRP, our best days are behind us.”
The year ahead includes other major agenda items for Landwehr in his eighth and possibly final year as the chief steward of Minnesota’s fish and wildlife, parks and trails, forests and minerals. There’s a pitched environmental fight over the DNR’s potential permitting of the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine near Babbit; a major funding request at the Legislature to address tons of deferred maintenance on the DNR’s statewide assets; a feud with the Board of Animal Health regarding chronic wasting disease (CWD) protections for deer; and an upcoming external review of the DNR’s walleye management on Mille Lacs.
Landwehr touches on issues facing his agency, as he sees them, in the year ahead:
When Minnesota had 1.83 million acres of CRP in 2007, hunters harvested 655,443 roosters. Times were good and “we didn’t realize it could come to an end.”
In 2016, with barely a million acres set aside in the program, the ringneck harvest was well under 200,000 birds — a 70 percent decline. Now, the state’s CRP collective is around 500,000 acres, dwindling by the day and removing pheasant habitat at every turn.
Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson is the lead Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, and Landwehr has pleaded with him and other delegates to expand the CRP program from 24 million acres nationally to 40 million. Such an increase — estimated to cost $6 billion — would probably give Minnesota 2 million acres of CRP. The program pays farmers to stop production on their land for 10-15-year intervals to improve the environment.
Landwehr said the strong correlation between CRP acreage and pheasant harvest is undeniable. Another push for raising the CRP ceiling is coming from farmers fed up with low commodity prices. Land conservationists, including many in government, want the cap raised to reduce runoff of farm chemicals into state waters.
The very next deer season in Minnesota is setting up as a period that could “finalize the recovery” of the state’s wild deer herd. The winter has been relatively mild and the state’s first deer plan will be finalized in a matter of months, establishing a target harvest and other management objectives derived with citizen input.
DNR wildlife managers and research scientists will continue to wrestle with an outbreak of CWD in southeastern Minnesota around Preston, Lanesboro and other parts of Fillmore County. Dealing with the disease has been costly, including CWD monitoring of wild deer in areas around two deer farms north of the Twin Cities where CWD was found in penned whitetails.
No new cases were discovered, and Landwehr said he’s been pleased that the frequency of CWD is diminishing in harvested deer tested for the disease in Fillmore County.
Still, the agency is eager for state auditors to complete an external review of the Board of Animal Health, the state agency with regulatory oversight of private deer farms. The DNR has been critical of Board of Animal Health officials for being too cozy with deer farmers. There’s a fear at the DNR that sloppy deer farms could spread CWD from tame deer to the state’s priceless wild herd.
“I’m looking forward to that [state audit] … We’ve had some concerns about shortcomings in oversight. … It’s mind-boggling that we don’t take the utmost precautions to protect [wild deer].’’
Mille Lacs walleye
If Chris Vandergoot of the U.S. Geological Survey gives the DNR a black eye over its comanagement of the Mille Lacs walleye fishery, so be it. That’s because the agency views Vandergoot as “someone with real expertise” who could possibly find ways for the state and tribal fisheries managers to change their methodologies if flaws in the lake’s conservation practices are detected. If Vandergoot and his team can suggest different approaches to protect the declining walleye in Mille Lacs, the DNR wants to hear them.
For now, state and tribal fisheries managers are sticking to a comanagement template that will soon set walleye harvest allocations for state-licensed anglers and tribal anglers. 2018 is the second year of a three-year agreement under which Minnesota has to make amends for taking more walleyes than allocated in each of the past two years. Strict allocations in the past few open-water seasons have made it illegal for state anglers to keep any walleyes. In addition, the lake has been shut down at times to avoid high mortality rates from catch-and-release that count against the state’s allocation.
More than 673 DNR buildings statewide have a rating of “poor” or “unacceptable” with a deferred maintenance backlog of $46.5 million. There’s also tens of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance resting on state trails, forestry roads and bridges, a dam, water systems and unfinished compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. That’s why the No. 1 agenda item at the 2018 Legislature is a bonding request for $130 million to start fixing things. Three years ago, an inventory of DNR assets found a $330 million backlog of repairs. Today it stands at $360 million and the DNR is proposing to tackle it over 10 years with help from the Legislature.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of outreach to remind people of this huge need.”
DNR Forestry has ramped up its timber operations, producing 800,000 cords of wood from cutting trees on state land. Gov. Mark Dayton wants to see a million cords harvested this year. The agency describes the move as good for hunters and wildlife because it will help diversify forest habitat. The division also will continue its efforts to educate private landowners on the ecological benefits of forest diversification on their own land.