Teal, Wild Rice, Mystery Meat and the DNR: The MN Waterfowl Symposium

Attendees at the MN Waterfowl Symposium listen to Dr Josh Stafford
Attendees at the MN Waterfowl Symposium listen to Dr Josh Stafford

The room may have been a little warm, but you didn’t hear many complaints from the duck hunters and conservationists that filled the chairs at the old Thunderbird hotel in Bloomington.   This was the 2014 Minnesota Waterfowl Association Symposium and the topics were Blue-Winged Teal and the potential of an early teal season, along with the management of wild rice.   Oh, and we had some mystery meat, that turned out to be….(fanfare)…RAIL!

And it was pretty good.

While the day was broken into segments involving different topics, one recurring message seemed to play out unintentionally:  Money-or the lack of it.  I noticed that many of the research studies citied were over 10 years old.  Was that because we couldn’t afford to do new studies?   It’s clear that either our DNR is underfunded or there is misuse of the available funds.  I’d vote for the underfunding option and point to the increase in license fees as a way to combat that.

Commissioner Tom Landwehr discussed the fact that the waterfowl hunter might be overpaying for their right to hunt in the state compared to other license fees, but reiterated that license fees are the major source of funding.  “I’ve often felt that duck hunters are dinged more than anyone else.  One day, at the state level, I may try to change that.  But I will also assert that without that based funding-that’s how we run our program.  We have to have that base funding from our hunters and anglers, to provide the infrastructure of our hunting and fishing seasons. We need that core funding to pay for biologists.”

“I think we’re always cautious,” he added when asked about the increase in Federal Duck Stamp fees.  “We have the same discussion when we talk about the state fees.  Everyone understands that the dollar is worth less every year and you have to raise the price to maintain the program.  It’s fair to say every time we do a fee increase, you see a decline in sales the next year.  Slowly it builds back up over time, but it does have an immediate effect.”

Highlights of the day included the decoy collector segment that showcased Minnesota style decoys, southern Minnesota style decoys, Michigans and others.  Blue-winged teal discussion ranged from the average mortality of hens during the breeding season (52%? Did we hear that right??) to duck migration flight research using weather radar.  Michael Furtman offered tips on waterfowl photography, including the fact that you don’t really need to hide as much as you do in the fall, “Because the ducks aren’t getting shot at.”  Makes sense.

Michael Furtman offers photography tips.  See his photos and stories within the pages of MNSJ Magazine
Michael Furtman offers photography tips. See his photos and stories within the pages of MNSJ Magazine

The importance of wild rice in the state was main topic #2.  It’s so important that it’s actually managed by the DNR for wildlife as well as rice harvesters.  You also have to get a license to harvest wild rice in the state of Minnesota, which just happens to be the #1 state in the country for all things wild rice.

The meat and potatoes of the afternoon may have been the Q and A with DNR Commissioner Landwehr.  It’s not everyday that you get ask the head of the DNR a question, although in my experience he’s always been very accommodating anytime I’ve tried to bend his ear.

“I’m stunned at the lack of complaints,” Landwehr said while discussing the changes in the waterfowl season structure over the last couple seasons (the 3 zones, new shooting hours,  etc.) It seems those at the DNR are used to hearing the negatives.

He felt that having successful waterfowl seasons revolved around three important points:

1) Having a regulatory framework that allows for a successful harvest without over-harvest.

Considering the lack of complaints and the anecdotal evidence, it seems that we’ve got that.

2) Having enough hunters and a positive recruitment program.

The last couple of years have seen modest increases in waterfowl licenses being sold, a sign that the downward trend may have slowed or even been reversed.   26,000 students graduated firearms safety classes last year, the highest on record.

3) Maintaining and creating enough suitable habitat to sustain a manageable wildlife population.

This is where things get interesting.    1% of Minnesota’s native prairie is all that’s left.  200,000 acres of the original 18 million.  That is a sobering statistic.   Wetlands have been drained, shelter belts removed and grasslands plowed under.  CRP acres have come out.

“The biggest conservation problem were facing is the loss of grasslands.  It will take billions of dollars to restore the grasslands and many years, but you need to start right now,” Landwehr continued.  “Grasslands are not sexy.  If we were to destroy the forests, you’d have people throwing themselves in front of the bulldozers.”  He said taking out the lakes would have people up in arms as well.  But the grasslands?  Eh, who needs ’em.

We all do.

Whether you are a hunter or not, the grasslands do more than provide nesting and cover habitat for wildlife.  It filters the water.  Water clarity and cleanliness is important to everyone.  If we remove grasslands, we remove nature’s filtration system.   Think of it as the screen on your faucet, when you remove that filtration system, all sorts of things end up in your glass of water.

There is a tough political battle that involves the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture.  Both understand the need for one another, but disagree on just how that relationship should be.

“It isn’t one or the other,” Landwehr said. “You just need to do it right.” Explaining the balance that the two agencies needed to find.  “We’re going in opposite directions.”

Details will emerge about the new Farm Bill and ideas will form on just what it all means.  Discussion today surrounded the potential to maximize dollars designed for outdoor projects and how the new Bill will allow them to be spent.

Could an agriculture study be needed similar to the study that resulted in the Forest Sustainability Act?   A study determined that if harvest in our state’s forests continued at it’s pace at that time, our forests would be over harvested and new regulations were put in place.   The question was asked today, whether something like that could take place regarding agricultural practices and Commissioner Landwehr discussed looking into it.

The new Farm Bill may not address  every concern of the outdoorsman out there, but at least we’ve got one after two years in the making.  While the outlook on ducks is positive, the concern is the longterm viability as more and more habitat disappears.  While most of the room had gray hair, as one attendee pointed out, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done by sportsmen of all ages, and it’s not a battle that will end anytime soon.

For more about the MN Waterfowl Association, visit their website here.   If you missed the symposium and want to watch the webcast, you can watch it here. 

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