Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North North Dakota’s “Radical” Conservationists and Minnesota’s Designer Deer Hunt

By Shawn Perich

Last month my pickup broke down as I passed through a small town in southwestern North Dakota. The truck sputtered to a halt right in front of a body shop.

“I can’t fix it,” the man told me when I went inside, “But I’ll give my buddy a call. He can get right on it.”
It turned out his buddy owned a gas station and garage just a block away. I limped the truck over to the garage and he went to work. The problem was a rusted and broken clamp on the lower radiator hose. He replaced the clamp and had me back on the road in well under an hour. He charged so little that I left a tip on the shop bench. The encounter was typical of many I’ve had in North Dakota. The state is blessed with an abundance of down-to-earth, friendly people.

Still, I wasn’t surprised to learn three weeks later that the good people of North Dakota voted down a statewide initiative to dedicate 5% out of a total of $150 million in oil extraction tax revenues to land conservation and parks. North Dakotans have always been gun-shy when it comes to conservation. But what was surprising is the measure was defeated by a four-to-one margin.

But, as post-election reporting emerged, it became apparent that the good people of North Dakota were played for fools by big-money interests from out-of-state. Anti-conservation interests, including the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce, Big Ag and Big Oil, mounted an aggressive campaign to convince voters that dedicating money to conservation would take funding from schools, roads and other needs, and empower “radical” organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever to buy up farmland. None of the above was true.

According to Outdoor News columnist Dan Nelson, a million dollars of anti-conservation advertising was paid for by the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C. On Election Day, you can bet some little weasel lobbyist for Big Oil watched the North Dakota election results and laughed until he wet his pants. Surely, there is dark humor in the bitter irony that corporate lobbyists were able to convince salt-of-the-earth North Dakotans to fear Pheasants Forever.

But what’s happening on the ground in North Dakota isn’t funny at all. In the eastern portion of the state, grassland cover and wetlands that support ducks and pheasants are rapidly disappearing in the face of ever more intensive agriculture. Out West, oil drilling has overwhelmed the landscape, wreaking havoc with mule deer, bighorn sheep and other native wildlife. Across the state, wildlife experts say habitat losses are likely to continue and perhaps accelerate.

Maybe North Dakotans will figure out how to stop habitat losses without using a portion of their oil extraction tax revenues. Or maybe they’ll just let the habitat—and their cherished outdoor heritage—slip away. Then again, since they cherish their private property rights and are suspicious of “radical” groups like Ducks Unlimited, maybe they’ll just wait for a new federal subsidy program for habitat protection on private lands, such as a watered-down version of the Conservation Reserve Program.

The latter seems likely—and sooner than you may think. While substantial changes to farmland subsidies such as CRP won’t occur until the next reauthorization of the Farm Bill at least five years now, the U.S. House has passed and the Senate is considering legislation to increase the price of a federal duck stamp from $15 to $25. While conservationists have asked for the fee increase for years—the last increase was in 1991—the current bill is an example of the poor policy we’ve come to expect from Congress. All of the revenue from duck stamp fee increase will be devoted to private land easements—much of which will be doled out to farmers in the prairie pothole region of North Dakota. In other words, all of the new revenue will be dumped into a pork barrel.

What this means is there won’t be new money for fee title acquisition, such as the purchase of lands for national wildlife refuges or waterfowl production areas—in other words, no money for public hunting areas. If that’s not bad enough, there is plenty of evidence that conservation easements very often fail to deliver an adequate bang for the buck. Once purchased, most conservation easements are rarely monitored for compliance. Worse yet, in many easement programs noncompliance issues are poorly enforced.

It is difficult for me to believe the duck stamp fee increase will provide much benefit to ducks or duck hunters. About the only beneficiaries will be the landowners who line their pockets with duck stamp dollars by selling easements. I guess duck conservation isn’t so “radical” when Uncle Sam cuts you a check.

Minnesota’s Designer Deer Season

The Minnesota DNR has put so much spin into the 2014 deer season that it’s twirling like a top. In numerous press releases, we’re told this year’s lower deer harvest is “by design,” because the scarcity of whitetails led to bucks-only regulations across much of the state. Perhaps I’m a curmudgeon, but it seems to me that Mother Nature designed this year’s deer season, at least in the north, with back-to-back hard winters.

However, the DNR can take credit for “designing” the lack of deer elsewhere in the state. During the last decade or so, the DNR has treated hunters to the most liberal deer bag limits ever seen in this state, allowing hunters to kill anywhere from two to five deer. I’ve seen news stories bemoaning the fact hunters can tag “only” one deer this year.

Funny thing, but throughout most of my Minnesota deer hunting career, the bag limit was one deer. Now we’ve reached a point that hunters expect deer to be so abundant they can tag more than one. I’m not so sure that’s a healthy expectation. But I have a feeling that expectation will stir controversy and angst over state deer management in years to come.

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