Sarah Strommen, 46, has been Department of Natural Resources commissioner for nearly two years. In the interview that follows she discusses the effect of the pandemic on her agency's operations, the DNR's method of advocating for conservation of wetlands and roadsides, and state management of wolves, among other topics. Strommen is the first women appointed to head the DNR.
Q Talk about the challenges, and any surprises, of your first two years as DNR commissioner.
A The first year was different from the second because of the pandemic. The first year I spent a lot of time traveling and meeting with stakeholders and local folks and hearing their passions and concerns about natural resources. That was rewarding. It validated for me the passion Minnesotans have for the outdoors. The DNR's challenge is to connect with that passion. This year, since March, I haven't been traveling, so I haven't had the chance to connect with people as much. Yet this year the outdoors has been more important than ever to Minnesotans and their health and well-being.
Q How much time do you spend on fish and wildlife management, compared to minerals, lands, state parks and other DNR obligations?
A Fish, wildlife and state parks take up significant portions of my time. It's in those areas most Minnesotans connect with the outdoors. This was particularly true this year. Fishing and boating participation were up.
Q Because of the pandemic, many deer hunters this fall were asked to voluntarily submit their harvested animals for testing. But relatively few did. Will this undercut DNR tracking of the disease?
A We received enough submissions that we're not concerned about losing ground. We've had voluntary submissions before and it worked pretty well. This was an opportunity to try it again. It was also a good opportunity to remind hunters we're in this together.
Q How much of a threat is CWD to Minnesota's deer?
A That's what we're trying to address. The disease is still relatively contained here, and not every state is in that position. We want to be aggressive in our efforts to contain it.
Q Describe the state of Minnesota fisheries.
A It's good. We provide many diverse and productive angling opportunities, and it was great to see the bump in license sales this summer. If that continues into winter fishing and beyond, we might have to consider possible impacts on the resource of the additional angling pressure.
Q You've been without a communications director for three months.
A Gail Nosek started last week. She comes most recently from the Great Plains Institute.
Q Have you or anyone in the DNR considered marketing conservation more prominently to Minnesotans to increase their awareness and importance of, for example, land and water stewardship? Perhaps by using TV, billboards or other media?
A We've done that on specific issues, but not as an overall marketing strategy. Certainly the Fish and Wildlife Division has done it around specific conservation issues. Going forward, I think we will look at new ways to communicate with folks and engage them in the work we're doing. We want to introduce new audiences to the outdoors and make sure we have opportunities that match their interests.
Q But today most businesses have marketing plans designed to change attitudes and behaviors of target audiences. Taxpayers pay the DNR to conserve the state's natural resources, yet the agency often operates in silence, or nearly so, on important issues, such as wetland drainage, which continues yet today, and roadside management for wildlife.
A My priority, and the DNR's priority, is to connect people to the outdoors. People care about things they have experience with. Which is why it's critical to foster an interest in the outdoors in the next generation. We have a unique opportunity to gain ground in this area because so many people are using the outdoors. The challenge is to keep those people engaged. This is an important piece of our work going forward, as is thinking about sustaining conservation funding in a challenging environment.
Q If you proposed to Gov. Tim Walz an aggressive marketing campaign intended to stop wetland drainage and to better manage roadsides for pollinators and other wildlife — recognizing that roadsides represent a significant portion of remaining wildlife habitat in many parts of the state, while also recognizing the state's farm lobby would oppose these initiatives — would the governor allow it?
A I think our approach is more explaining why these issues are important instead of issuing directives.
Q Which would be more effective?
A I think that by investing in experiential opportunities in the outdoors, which the DNR does through many programs such as "I can camp,'' "I can mountain bike,'' and "I can fish,'' that we reach people and develop interests among them in conservation. With so many new people coming to the outdoors we've begun a campaign how to use nature appropriately, everything from sharing space to leaving campsites as clean as you found them.
Q The DNR wildlife section hasn't had a leader for over a year. Why not?
A We have someone acting in that position and filling the role. The section is still doing important new work on wetlands, in wildlife-management-area planning and in public engagement. The section's work hasn't slowed.
Q For the section to be without a permanent leader for so long might be unique in DNR history.
A It's not a position the commissioner hires. Your question is better directed to Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Olfelt. My major concern is that we are getting the work done.
Q Is it a budget issue?
A You'll have to ask Dave. It's a complex set of issues.
Q The DNR's position on wolf management and particularly wolf hunting under your administration and that of Gov. Walz differs from past administrations.
A I don't know if it's totally at odds. We're guided by a wolf management plan than hasn't been updated since 2001. We've used the plan when wolves were under federal protection and when they weren't. We're updating the plan. It involves technical experts, tribal coordination and public engagement. We will see the process through and use the plan to guide wolf management.
Q The letter you, representing the DNR, wrote to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2019 about the service's proposed delisting of wolves from federal protection equivocated about whether they should be delisted.
A What we said was that while gray wolves have recovered in Minnesota, a broader delisting of wolves elsewhere in the U.S. might not be warranted.
Q The letter also said there were cultural considerations that should be accounted for in a delisting, alluding to the opposition by some Native Americans to wolf hunting. Does the DNR consider cultural factors in establishing duck, deer or pheasant seasons? Wildlife management is a science, and Gov. Walz frequently cites the importance of following science in the management of, for example, the spread of the coronavirus.
A Our letter simply acknowledged there are multiple factors to consider in delisting. Species management is always based on biological factors as well as social factors. All DNR management plans have social considerations.
Q The governor's opposition to wolf hunting is widely known. Would you propose a wolf season knowing Walz is against it?
A The wolf plan, when it's updated, will be the product of considerable input from a wide variety of people and interests. We'll get it done and go from there.
Q Like most DNR employees, you've worked outside your office during the pandemic. Some DNR work, such as fish stocking and prescribed burns, was postponed by the pandemic. Have there also been positives during this time?
A Yes. We've developed different public engagement technologies. We're also rolling out different opportunities to interact with our staff and connect with a broader section of Minnesotans. We learn so much when we hear from people. I'm grateful for the many ways DNR staff have re-envisioned their work to fulfill public needs. Their dedication has really shone through.