As we enter 2017, a number of conservation issues simmer on the political pot. Some issues threaten the very existence of hunting and fishing. Starting with the barn-burners, let’s take a quick look at issues that will make outdoor news this year.
Federal Land Transfers
Turning over our national forests and other public lands to states or other entities, starting in the West, is a platform plank for the GOP, which now controls Congress and the White House. These are lands presently open to public hunting and fishing and other recreational uses, not to mention available for uses such as logging, mining and energy production, from which the federal government collects sales receipts, fees and royalties.
Some in Congress claim these lands would be better managed by the western states. Other folks, including many western state and local politicians, say the states can’t afford the cost of land management. Because it has happened previously, it is reasonable to assume cash-strapped states would likely sell or lease the best tracts public land to balance their budget. Say goodbye to everything from elk hunting to mountain biking if that political transaction should ever come to pass.
During the campaign, President-elect Trump said he would not give up public lands. His choice for Secretary of Interior, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, is on record as a public lands supporter. Hunting organizations involved in this issue, such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, say they can work with Zinke. Expect opening volleys in a federal land battle to be fired from Utah, home to the most vociferous advocates of land transfers.
There is no partisanship in this observation. Poor public land management is entirely the fault of Congress. Financially, our duly elected treat public lands like hardscrabble farms with meager budget appropriations. Conversely, they enact a web of regulations that ensnare natural resource agencies in “analysis paralysis” whenever they try to accomplish on-the-ground management. On top of that, Congress double-dips into the the U.S. Forest Service’s budget to pay the skyrocketing costs of fighting catastrophic wildfires. Firefighting now consumes over 50 percent of the Forest Service budget. That means when fires are raging in California, something isn’t getting done on the Superior and Chippewa national forests in Minnesota; things like putting up timber sales, maintaining recreational trails or other activities important to the economy and quality of life in our state. Legislation to treat wildfires as disasters and fund firefighting accordingly has been introduced, but Congress hasn’t passed it…yet.
Farmland Conservation Issues
Every pheasant hunter is well aware that farmland conservation tumbled backward over the past decade with the loss of CRP lands and the proliferation of tiling and draining. Extensive habitat loss result triggered a sharp decline in game birds such as pheasants, as well as suppressing white-tailed deer numbers. Not to mention increased pollution in farmland waterways and aquifers from agricultural runoff. In that time frame, Iowa disappeared from the map of pheasant hunting destinations. Even fabled South Dakota is losing some of its pheasant hunting luster. If habitat loss continues at the present pace, abundant wildlife and the hunting it supports will soon disappear from a broad swath of the American landscape.
The federal farm bill is up for re-authorization in 2018, which means now is the time to seek substantial improvements to the conservation policies it contains. At the very least, we need to get more grass on the ground across the Upper Midwest and Great Plains, as well as retain and improve existing wetlands protections. Doing so won’t be easy, although there is some indication producers want more conservation set-aside acres to provide economic stability as a balance to fluctuating commodity prices.
Some folks have great hopes the incoming Congress will act quickly to remove wolves in the Lake States, and perhaps everywhere, from the Endangered Species List. Maybe that will occur. Certainly, many people agree that wolves are not endangered in Minnesota and that the state is capable of sustainable population management. However, those who disagree have proven effective at furthering their cause. An additional wrinkle is the Yellowstone area’s grizzly population, which is also ready to be considered for de-listing. You can sum about debates over the management of wolves of grizzlies with two words: passionate and divisive. A congressional wolf de-listing may not be a legislative slam-dunk.
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
This fall’s discovery of three CWD-infected wild whitetails in southeastern Minnesota and the recent quarantine of a Crow Wing County deer farm are alarming developments. The always-fatal deer disease has spread quickly in Wisconsin, where wildlife managers’ efforts to contain it have been thwarted by politics. By contrast, Minnesota has taken an aggressive approach to the containment and elimination of CWD when it was discovered here. Hopefully the state, if anything, will become more aggressive in efforts to fight CWD. Concerns over CWD could well play a decisive role in the proposal to introduce a new elk herd south and west of Duluth. Will the introduced elk be certified as CWD-free? Does such a source of wild elk exist?
Moose and Mille Lacs
Last fall, northeastern Minnesota Ojibwe bands held moose hunts, despite a closed state hunting season (due to concerns about the overall health of northeastern Minnesota’s rapidly diminishing moose population). The bands believe enough moose exist that they can kill some animals without harming the population; they have a treaty-affirmed right to do so. Last fall’s moose hunt may have passed a precedent-setting wildlife management milestone: tribal-only harvest of a game species. Last year, on Mille Lacs, state anglers were restricted to no harvest of walleyes. Although the bands chose not to net last spring, they may well do so in the future, regardless of state harvest restrictions. If the walleye abundance does not improve, it is not hard to envision a situation where a small, tribal-only walleye harvest occurs.
The Minnesota Legislature flipped from Democratic to Republican control this year. Some familiar faces on both sides of the aisle won’t be there when the new Legislature convenes. How political changes may affect dedicated funding for fish and wildlife habitat remains to be seen.
Deer, Please not Deer!
We’ve already mentioned CWD, which will inevitably be in the news. The DNR’s citizen’s advisory group to guide the development of a statewide deer management plan will meet throughout 2017. Their deliberations will make the news, too. Beyond those significant deer stories, let’s hope no new whitetail woes emerge. We have enough conservation issues to worry about in 2017. Let’s look forward to our time in the Minnesota deer woods next November.