When Minnesota's duck hunting season opens Saturday with some of the biggest regulation changes in a generation, Jim Bezat will be in a duck blind, confident he had a hand in those changes.
"I got an opportunity to play a role in changing the duck hunting climate in Minnesota,'' said Bezat, 68, of Burnsville, one of 15 members of a unique waterfowl hunter focus group set up this year by the Department of Natural Resources.
The group, the brainchild of DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, was formed to give input to the DNR on often-contentious waterfowl issues. It met four times since spring, dealing with regulations, recruitment, research and habitat. The last meeting was Tuesday in Rogers.
The idea, Landwehr said, was to collect public opinion differently. The DNR holds input meetings, receives e-mails, holds a yearly "roundtable'' session with stakeholders and has done scientific surveys.
But the focus group concept was designed to create a small group that could interact with DNR officials through in-depth conversations, and offer specific recommendations.
"It's remarkable -- I've never seen anything like it,'' said John Devney, a Minnesota native, vice president of Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck, N.D., and a focus group member.
Said Landwehr: "When you look at how business thinks about refining a product, focus groups are a standard tool. When we have issues that are not black and white, we need a different way to get people's input. We needed to have a conversation of these ideas instead of just taking a poll or talking to only motivated people who show up at a meeting.''
Landwehr, 56, an avid waterfowl hunter, led the three- to four-hour meetings.
"I knew we wanted to do something big with waterfowl,'' he said. "The focus group gave us a chance to bounce those ideas around. I think it was extremely successful.''
Among the changes: This year's duck season will start a week earlier than normal; opening day hours will begin a half-hour before sunrise instead of 9 a.m. or later. The state will be divided into two zones, with a split season in the south. And bag limits have been liberalized for hen mallards and wood ducks.
When the DNR solicited the public for the focus group, it received nearly 300 names of interested people. The DNR chose 15 -- eight citizens from different geographic areas and seven members of conservation groups, including Ducks Unlimited, Minnesota Waterfowl Association, Delta Waterfowl, Minnesota Duck and Goose Callers Association, Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Association, the Izaak Walton League and Minnesota Conservation Federation.
Four of the 15 members were women -- a percentage that some questioned.
"We wanted some geographic and age distribution and diversity,'' Landwehr explained. "Only four women submitted their names, and I selected all of them. One of the goals was to broaden the base of duck hunters. I felt it was very important to get female constituents.''
Alexandra Larson, 20, of Mounds View, one of the four women, said she thought female representation was appropriate, especially considering that the DNR is trying to widen the pool of hunters.
"I think it is extremely important,'' said Larson. A college student who also works in the gun department at Gander Mountain, Larson has been hunting since she was 11.
"There are a lot of avid women hunters,'' she said.
Landwehr acknowledged the DNR still faces more waterfowl management challenges, from habitat to possible further regulation changes. But he said the focus group's work is done. He said he could form another, with different members, sometime in the future.
"Thank you for your participation,'' he told the group Tuesday. "The face of waterfowl management will change because of your involvement.''
Doug Smith • email@example.com