Minnesota legislators who care about fish, wildlife and other natural resources are poised to consider wolf hunting, lowering the daily limit for walleyes, and reining in wake boats during a five-month session expected to be dominated by fiscal matters and COVID-19 precautions.
Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials will propose a new budget later this month and explain how last year's surge in fishing, boating, hiking, camping, trail riding, state park usage and increases in some types of hunting mattered to the agency's bottom line.
"Our big push is to get a budget put together,'' said Assistant DNR Commissioner Bob Meier. "We're going to figure that out and go from there.''
In another outdoors story line, Republicans and Democrats will deal once again with an as-yet-unapproved set of enhancement projects advanced in 2019 by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR). Money for the $61 million compilation is in the bank, but both sides have said Republicans withheld Senate approval last year as a way to push back against state implementation of a "clean car" emissions rule for new cars.
Two Republicans — Sen. Carrie Ruud of Breezy Point and Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen of Alexandria — both said in interviews this week that it's time to set the LCCMR projects in motion. In addition to the projects advanced by LCCMR in 2019, a second bill will be introduced at this year's session, a record-setting package of LCCMR enhancement projects assembled in 2020. The new measure offers $70.8 million in lottery proceeds for 88 projects ranging from clean water initiatives to conservation of imperiled turtles and preservation of wild rice.
"We should get those two bills off our plate,'' said Ruud, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Legacy Finance Committee. "They need to get done and out the door so we can put people to work and get the projects done.''
Ingebrigtsen, who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said he's expecting early movement on the LCCMR legislation.
Approval also is expected for a $127 million bill laying out dozens of new Outdoor Heritage Fund projects related to hunting, fishing, nongame wildlife, clean water and other resources. Constitutionally directed tax money for the enhancements comes from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment.
Ruud, Ingebrigtsen, Meier and Rep. Rick Hansen, D-South St. Paul, provided outlooks for the session in separate interviews with the Star Tribune. Hansen is chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance & Policy Committee.
He said his committee will quickly revive last year's LCCMR projects bill. Until the Senate takes similar action, Republicans will be holding the measure hostage, Hansen said.
DNR finances will be a concern in his committee. New to the discussion will be questions about how the state's economic engine will fare during and after the coronavirus pandemic.
Hansen said legislators will want to know if last year's increases are sustainable in the sale of fishing licenses, hunting licenses, state park permits, boat registrations, and other DNR fee programs.
On the policy side, he expects a bill addressing the outbreak of chronic wasting disease in wild deer. He also expects debate over potential control measures to protect lake shorelines from erosion caused by waves from wake boats. If there's agreement, the boats could be prohibited from operating within a certain distance from shore.
Hansen said his committee also might delve into the issue of environmental contaminants and how they affect wildlife. Already percolating is a state study of agricultural insecticides being found in deer.
Ruud said she's more determined that ever to have her committee consider lowering the statewide possession limit for walleye from six to four. Increases in fishing pressure are undeniable and "the resource is getting hammered,'' Ruud said.
The DNR hasn't previously embraced the idea of a lower walleye limit, but Meier said the agency wants to work with Ruud and her committee.
"Let's deal with the fishing pressure statewide right now,'' he said.
With the recent removal of gray wolves from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, Minnesotans will undoubtedly discuss a possible return to hunting and trapping as a way to manage the wolf population. Ingebrigtsen said it will be challenging to overcome opposition to lethal means, but his committee will hear from ranchers, farmers, and deer hunters who perceive wolves as destructive and overabundant. "You'll see a bill come right out of the chute on that,'' Ingebrigtsen predicted.
Meanwhile, the DNR is working on a wolf management plan that's certain to attract legislative attention if it's proposed before the session ends.
Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213