By Shawn Perich
Timing is everything. The Minnesota DNR schedules its annual roundtable for early January, a time when just about every outdoor lover can set aside a weekend to spend time indoors. Attendees of the invite-only event come from all over the state and represent a wide range of outdoor and conservation interests. Mingling with them are state legislators, the DNR commissioner and his division leaders, staff from the DNR and other agencies involved in natural resource management and representatives from nonprofit conservation and sportsman’s organizations.
The two-day event is always chuck-full of presentations on fisheries, wildlife and environmental topics, though the agenda is better in some years than in others. Last weekend’s roundtable was a good one. Notable on the agenda was a rundown of habitat accomplishments from the first five years of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund. The achievements were many and varied, from the acquisition of new public hunting grounds on the western prairie to the extensive restoration of walleye habitat in the Rat Root River near the Canadian border.
The many accomplishments of outdoor heritage funding were overshadowed roundtable presentations about the ongoing loss of habitat occurring throughout the agricultural zone as soaring prices for land and commodities, bolstered by federal farm policies that subsidize the costs of developing marginal lands, encourage producers to convert every possible acre to corn and soybean production. Many of the folks I met in the hallways were stunned by the vast scale of degradation occurring on our lands and waters and enraged to learn Congress is funding this environmental debacle. To my knowledge, none of Minnesota congressional delegation attended the roundtable.
In the hallway, a group called Sportsmen Take Action had an audacious display of what happens when a dog gets caught in a body-grip trap. The organization is not anti-trapping, but wants to draw attention to a DNR decision to allow landowners or trappers with permission to set traps on walk-in areas in beginning in 2014. During the first three years of the program, trapping wasn’t allowed on the walk-ins, which are private lands leased for public hunting.
“The walk-in areas are primarily intended for pheasant hunting,” says Kevin Ausland of Sportsmen for Change. “Why would you allow body-grip traps on lands where you are directing hunters to take their dogs?”
Ausland, who once lost a dog while pheasant hunting in western Minnesota, possibly to trap, has included pictures of dogs killed in body-grips with a questionnaire he has handed out at least one Twin Cities Sport Show. He’s heard from both hunters and a few trappers that the present rules for using body-grip traps need to be re-examined to find ways to minimize the chance of accidentally catching a dog.
I also talked to a couple of trappers at the roundtable. While they may not share Ausland’s viewpoint, they, too, are concerned about the issue of dogs and body-grips. I was given a copy of a new video produced by the Minnesota Forest Zone Trapping Association that shows non trappers how to remove a dog from a body-grip trap.
Nevertheless, the dogs and body-grips dilemma remains an albatross for Minnesota’s trapping community. Knowing folks on both sides of the issue, I find it frustrating they can’t sit down and begin a conversation to resolve it. I also find it ironic that the DNR Division of Wildlife, which expects other outdoor users to toe the line regarding best management practices intended to prevent harm to resources or resource users, doesn’t apply the same standard to body-grip trap use. My guess is that we’ll have to wait until someone in the Commissioner’s Office or in the Legislature loses a dog before they address the issue.
At dinner one evening, I shared a table with folks who were frustrated that some agency bureaucrats spent too much time talking at them rather than involving participants in productive discussion. Fortunately, I attended one session where the DNR did seek feedback from everyone in the room. Responding to complaints from hunters about presently low deer numbers across much of the state, wildlife staff broke everyone into small groups based on the region of the state where they hunt. Then we were given electronic “clickers” to answer questions, with the results immediately tallied on the screen. While there were only 50 of us, it was interesting to see how responses varied from one region to another.
On Saturday morning, I had a short conversation with former state senator Bob Lessard, for whom the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund is named. We talked about how the fund has made a difference to the places where people hunt and fish across the state. Lessard also talked about how small clubs and organizations are able to apply for grants they can use for local habitat projects. Then he showed me pictures of the Rat Root River project near his home town of International Falls, including a tale from when he was a kid and everyone used to set clandestine fish traps in spring to catch spawning walleyes. Due to habitat loss, the walleye run dwindled away, but is now being restored due to work done in the recently completed project. Lessard was understandably proud of the local accomplishments.
Then I told him a story. On the North Shore, we’ve seen less outdoor funding than some other parts of the state. But what had made a difference, I said, is the local funding for the arts also derived from the Legacy Fund, which has helped boost the thriving North Shore arts community. Some folks may be surprised to learn that Mr. Lessard was tickled to hear about it. What matters to him is all Legacy funding, whether for the arts or the outdoors, is being put to good use in Minnesota’s rural communities. You might say the Legacy Fund has allowed us to improve both wildlife and human habitat.