A chat with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr
Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, was in northwest Minnesota on Wednesday and Thursday meeting with various constituents, including county boards in Kittson and Roseau counties.
Thursday morning, Landwehr, 58, spoke to Herald outdoors editor Brad Dokken by telephone from Lake Bronson State Park, where he had just wrapped up a meeting with Kittson County officials, before heading to Roseau, Minn., to meet with county commissioners. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
Q. What’s on the agenda during your visit to northwest Minnesota?
A. I like this time of year when things are quiet at the Capitol to be able to get out to different corners of the state. (Wednesday) we met with the White Earth Band to talk about wolves, we looked at the flood project over in Moorhead, we met with the Bemidji Forestry Affairs Council, and so it’s just an opportunity for me to get out but also for them to be able to have a discussion directly with me.
Q. What issues did you discuss with Kittson County commissioners?
A. They’re very interested in the ongoing elk discussions. That was one of the first things and the elk planning effort. We’ve been through two or three meetings so we’re coming to some conclusion on that.
There’s always an ongoing desire to look at the state portfolio of land, and we just had a land sale in conjunction with the county and had some success with that, but we’re at Lake Bronson and we’ve got some parcels here we think are appropriate to sell off but because of some bureaucracy we’ve got to deal with, we couldn’t sell them this time around so that upset the county when it happened. And I think they understand what’s going on, but I’m here to ensure to them that we are going to fulfill our promise; we’re going to ultimately close on these things as soon as we can.
Sometimes it helps to have the commissioner there to hear the issue and keep it on track.
Q. Minnesota is a large, diverse state with issues and concerns that vary by region. As commissioner, how do you balance those differences?
A. That is a challenge, candidly. There are, at any point in time, there are two dozen issues; one of them in any part of the state is just a really hot item. Mining on the Iron Range or the Fargo-Moorhead diversion over here, or down in the southeast metro, it’s silica sand or central Minnesota, it’s deer, so there’s a big issue in every corner of the state. You roll them all up, and it’s two dozen big issues at any point in time. It is challenging sort of keeping abreast of them all, but that just adds to the value of this type of visit because it gives me a chance not only to hear what people’s concerns are but also to bring our message out from the top about what our policy or process is going to be on any particular thing
Q. Switching to deer, we’ve gone from a period of high abundance a decade ago to the point where it’s going to be very difficult to get a doe permit in most parts of the state this fall. What’s being done to turn the population around?
A. The current deer situation is really a function of two converging forces, and one was — and sometimes, people forget this — but we made a deliberate effort five years ago in our goal-setting process to drive the herd down, to generally reduce it by 25 percent, and that was done at a time when we had great deer abundance and concern in some quarters, frankly, that we might not be able to get the deer herd under control. So we made a deliberate effort on a five-year basis to drive the herd population down.
On top of that, we had two back-to-back severe winters, unforeseen and unpredictable, and that did not help with the population. So the current situation is a function of those two contributing elements and certainly that’s what we heard is deer hunters, whether or not they envisioned what 25 percent reduction was five years ago, they want more deer than they’re seeing today.
I think generally what has struck me more than anything is that, in spite of these severe restrictions we’re putting on this year, I have heard almost no complaints, and so I think — and this might be inappropriate — but I take the lack of complaints to be sort of a tacit endorsement of what’s going on, and we’ve certainly gotten that explicit endorsement from deer hunters and others that they believe this is the right step in order to build the herd up.
So I guess in short, I’ve been pleased it seems as though people recognize this conservative season is what is needed to build the deer herd up, and people are willing to tighten the belt for a year knowing that the deer population can rebound fairly quickly and that next year, things should be a little bit more liberal.
Q. Any concerns about that and the impact it’s going to have on revenues?
A. I think one of the misconceptions people have is that our activities are directed toward ensuring that we have the amount of revenue coming in. I just have to be honest and say revenue is about the last thing we think of when we set seasons and we manage populations.
We just have to do the right thing and get the herd back to where it needs to be.
Q. The hunting and fishing license fee hike has been in effect for about a year and a half now. What impact has that had on day- to-day operations?
A. Well, it’s been just a lifesaver, candidly. The Game and Fish Fund at the time we got the fee increase was headed for red in 2013, which meant that we had somewhere in the vicinity of 60-70 vacancies in wildlife we couldn’t fill because we weren’t seeing any money coming. We had, I think, 40 vacancies in enforcement, a number of vacancies in fisheries. That’s the bread-and-butter of our operation and so, with all of those vacancies, we weren’t able to do some of the most basic things that fish and wildlife managers do like surveys, lake surveys, wildlife surveys, stocking efforts, the enforcement efforts that we need.
That fund source being back in the black, in addition to other funding sources like Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson, really has allowed us to get back up to full capacity, and so in the face of all of these retirements that we’re having — we’re having just a wave of them — we aren’t sitting here now for two years or three years or four years with a vacant position, and we really can get people out there that need to do the work on the ground, managing wildlife areas, managing fish populations etc.
Q. Any progress on filling the conservation officer vacancies in northwest Minnesota with the recent completion of an officer training academy? At last count, seven of 10 positions were vacant, and hunting season is just around the corner.
A. My understanding is this academy that just graduated, a number of those spots — I thought I heard four — are actually going to be filled. They still have some field training to do, I think I heard they actually land in their spots three days before the deer opener so that’s kind of trial by fire, but we are going to get some of those vacancies filled.
Q. Shifting to wolves, how do you think the whole state management process is going? It seems like the population is stable to slightly increasing based on the last survey I saw.
A. This is what we have told people we were going to do: We’re going to manage for stable populations and can have a hunting and trapping season on wolves and a sustainable population in perpetuity, and I think this last survey is a symbol of that. We started out the first year with give or take 3,000 animals, and we hadn’t had a recent survey, but after the first season, we were down to about 2,100 animals. Now, we’re up to about 2,400, and so, I think it demonstrates — A) It’s not our objective to eliminate wolves, it is our objective to keep the population around. And B) By good management of the seasons, we can be pretty prescriptive in terms of the harvest that we’re going after and the population. So I’m hoping that each successive year makes it more and more clear that our goal is to manage a sustainable population and that in fact we can have both a season and a population that people can enjoy in perpetuity.
Q. Spring duck populations across North America were near record highs, despite the loss of habitat and some ominous signs. Can that uptrend continue, given the current changes on the landscape?
A. The reality is the population is going up primarily because it’s been very, very wet, and even though we are losing permanent grass, especially in the Dakotas, when you have a wet spring, especially in Canada, it renders a lot of acres unfarmable. So, even though it’s not in a permanent conservation program, you have a lot of idle fields out there by virtue of the fact they can’t get equipment into them and certainly we see that in Minnesota, as well, and so the population is experiencing an increase simply because it rained.
If it stopped raining, given the grassland loss we have, there’s no doubt we will have a reduction in duck numbers so this is a little bit of a feint, if you will, a little sleight of hand that we have a good population this year. We certainly have to keep our eye on the ball in terms of habitat conservation.
Q. In North Dakota, it appears there will a measure on the ballot to provide dedicated funding for conservation and the outdoors. What would you tell voters in North Dakota who might be on the fence about the idea of dedicated funding for conservation?
A. I often use the analogy, when Minnesota was considering (dedicated funding), that it’s not unlike Social Security. Everybody pays Social Security; you maybe don’t realize it because it comes out of your check before anything else, and you may have your own opinions about whether or not it’s a good idea, but at the end of a career, that Social Security is there and it ensures that there is long-term health for an individual.
I see this sort of Legacy funding (as it’s called in Minnesota) as ensuring the long-term health of a state in this case. Because that money is going into protecting what some people call the green infrastructure of the state. It’s the wetlands that hold water that recharge our groundwater, it’s the force that provides jobs for the forest products industry, it’s the grasslands that are going to keep surface waters clean by virtue of holding soil on the ground.
This is a very modest investment in the future, and it is so easy to overlook the needs of conservation when you’re facing issues around education or human services or transportation. Conservation’s often the first thing that’s put on the chopping block, and by virtue of this dedicated funding, we’re ensuring that we’re putting that money into the Social Security system for the state. It’s not so much for here and today as much as it is for tomorrow and the kids, and I think that really is a message that people need to understand.
Q. Any parting thoughts?
A. I’m kind of a glass-half-full kind of guy. What I keep reminding people, because I do get to travel, is that when you look at the abundance of opportunity we’ve got here, the abundance of access, the diversity of opportunities we’ve got here from trout fishing in southeast Minnesota to fishing for muskies on Mille Lacs to lake trout in Superior or the Boundary Waters, you look at the hunting opportunities we’ve got starting with the turkey seasons in the spring — there’s even turkeys up here now — all the way to elk and everything in-between, the opportunities we’ve got as residents of the state of Minnesota are just phenomenal, and it really is a great place to work and a great place to recreate. I recognize we’ve got issues that we need to work on, but I hope that people recognize that the diversity of things that we’ve got as hunters and anglers or outdoor recreationists is just nothing short of phenomenal, and it really is a good place to be, and it’s a good time to be here.