Monday, January 23, 2012

Wolves, deer could overshadow proposed license fee hike in Minnesota

Published January 22, 2012

If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on deer and wolves being the bigger priority among legislators, at least in northern Minnesota. 

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources again will ask state lawmakers to approve an increase in hunting and fishing license fees during the legislative session that begins Tuesday.
If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on deer and wolves being the bigger priority among legislators, at least in northern Minnesota.
An increase in license fees no doubt is justified to bolster a Game and Fish Fund that is projected to go into the red by June 2013 without additional revenue. The cost of fishing licenses hasn’t changed since 2001, while hunting license fees haven’t risen since 2000.
Money from the Game and Fish Fund pays for essential work such as fisheries surveys and projects to improve wildlife habitat. The money doesn’t go nearly as far as it did a decade ago, so in that context, the fee hike might seem like an easy sell.
Lawmakers aren’t likely to be so easily convinced, however. The DNR’s effort to raise license fees fell short last year and the same thing could happen this legislative session.
I talked about the fee hike and other potential outdoors issues the other night with Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, while he was en route from northern Minnesota to the Twin Cities. I’ve known Fabian since I had him as a teacher in high school, and we’ve shared time in a boat together.
An avid hunter and fisherman, Fabian said he suspects the fee hike again is going to face strong opposition in the Legislature.
“For me personally, I’m going to have a hard time supporting it simply because I just don’t think the DNR is responding very well to the wishes of the people of northwest Minnesota,” Fabian said, citing such long-brewing issues as ditch taxes and ATV access on state lands. “I just wish the DNR would be better neighbors.”
Whether that claim is justified is a matter of opinion, but perception often is reality in people’s minds. Nowhere, perhaps, is that more evident than northwest Minnesota, where the DNR traditionally isn’t the most popular agency in the state.
For proof that wolves are going to be a priority, look no further than a hearing set for 8:15 a.m. Thursday — just three days into the legislative session — when the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee discusses bills to hunt and trap wolves.
Fabian sits on the committee.
“In terms of the big picture, I think it boils down to timber wolves,” he said of major outdoors issues this session.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last month proposed removing wolves in the western Great Lakes Region, including Minnesota, from federal protection. That means Minnesota will regain control of managing the state’s wolf population. That will happen Friday if all goes according to plan.
The state is ready; the DNR has a wolf management plan in place that it says will protect the species and monitor their numbers while giving livestock and pet owners more protection from depredation.
The plan also calls for a limited hunting and trapping season beginning this fall. The DNR has said the opportunity to take wolves wouldn’t fall within the firearms deer season, but it’s likely that legislators will tinker with the plan.
Fabian said he doesn’t think deer hunters would take many wolves, and even if they did, hunters and trappers will be required to register the animals; once a quota is reached, the season would close.
“For an agency looking for a new revenue stream, you could generate a tremendous amount of revenue if you make a wolf tag available during the deer hunting season,” Fabian said. “I’ve hunted deer about 35 years and have hunted consistently in some of the areas that have very high concentrations of timber wolves. I’ve never seen one when I’ve been sitting on my deer stand.
“How many wolves would be shot during deer season? I don’t think it would be very many.”
As for deer, the DNR on Thursday acknowledged population goals set by the agency and a citizen committee has resulted in deer numbers in many areas that are lower than hunters would like. Hunting success this past fall declined 7 percent from the previous year, the DNR said.
“I think we’re going to have a hearing on what’s happening with our deer herd,” Fabian said. “The management of the deer herd is going to be fairly controversial because the numbers are so low.”
After Thursday morning’s wolf hearing, Fabian is driving the 300-plus miles from St. Paul to Roseau for a 6:30 p.m. town hall meeting with DNR personnel at Roseau High School. While the organizer of the meeting furnished a wide-ranging agenda, DNR Regional Director Lori Dowling said the meeting only will address wolf delisting.
How the wolf discussion plays with the audience could say a lot about how how proposals for hunting and trapping seasons fare in the Legislature.
Stay tuned. It could be an eventful winter for Minnesota’s outdoors.