A chat with Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr

Tom Landwehr is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a position he has held since January 2011, when Gov. Mark Dayton appointed him to the post.

Tom Landwehr talks to a visitor at the Minnesota State Fair
Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr talks to a Minnesota State Fair visitor at his department's booth. Among topics he discussed was invasive species.

Tom Landwehr is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, a position he has held since January 2011, when Gov. Mark Dayton appointed him to the post.

Landwehr, 57, was in northwest Minnesota this week meeting with stakeholders, including commissioners from Kittson and Roseau counties. He spoke to Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken by phone Wednesday morning about outdoors issues in northwest Minnesota and other parts of the state while en route from Hallock to Greenbush, Minn.

Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. You've been on the job about 2½ years now. How has the DNR changed since you became commissioner?

A. Well, there's sort of two aspects to the work we do. Just the work we have to do day in and day out -- managing forests, doing prescribed fire, counting fish -- I'd say by and large, that continues no matter who's the commissioner. One difference is I think we're financially in a much more stable position. The license fee increase was approved a year ago, and this last session, we got additional programs -- funding for groundwater and a big bump in our forestry funding. So as a result of the last two sessions, we're in a much more stable place financially, which is good.


In addition, one of the things we tried to establish early on was our proactive strategy. We put together a document called "Conservation That Works." If you look closely at that, we've made some really pleasant progress. It's things like putting a priority on grassland and so there's been a lot of discussion on how to deal with the loss of CRP and continuing loss of prairie and what can be the role of the department and our partners.

Q. What has been on the agenda during your visit to northwest Minnesota?

A. This time of year gives me a good chance to visit with some of our key stakeholders to find out if there's any problems, weigh in, establish and maintain those relationships.

Right after I got the job, the governor put me on a plane to Roseau County and we drove to Kittson County. He'd heard during his campaign there were some real problems in the northwest. So, a year and a half ago, I came up and visited. I think things have improved dramatically, but I still want to get out and run the trap line, if you will, with some of the partners ... just making sure folks understand we want to keep the lines of communication open.

Q. There've been discussions to increase the elk herd in Kittson County as a way to boost tourism. What's your stance on that plan, and where do you see it going?

A. There's a lot of history with elk in Kittson County and the Grygla area as a result of some of the problems with crop depredation. We worked on a plan (released in November 2009) we're now on the tail end of that was developed with local input. That plan called for maintaining a low population, and that plan is in effect until 2015.

There's a groundswell of support, local support, to reconsider that plan and look at higher elk populations. We talked about that with Kittson County. I look at (the current elk management plan) as our commitment to the community. I consider that plan our word, and we're going to stick by it until such time the community tells us to do something different.

I look at the county board as being reflective of local sentiment, and I think what we can agree to is when that plan expires in 2015, it's probably time to start redoing that plan, and when we do, we'll pull together a diverse group of constituents or residents and use that group as a sounding board for what the elk herd of the community will look like as desired by the community.


Q. Results from the wolf survey released Tuesday showed the population has declined since 2008. Given the controversy in some circles about the wolf season, does that concern you at all?

A. I think I'd be surprised if the population didn't go down. We killed 400 (during the hunting and trapping seasons) and another 300 during depredation efforts. We know there were at least 700 taken legally last year, so that 2,200 (population estimate) was right on the mark we'd expect it to be.

Q. Has a decision been made on the quota for this year's wolf seasons?

A. I think it's safe to say it will be less than last year. We're going to have some discussions within our own ranks as well as tribes and federal biologists. I think it will be a conservative season. We're still under the shadow of a federal lawsuit so we want to make sure everything we do is defensible and conservative and not something that would make people raise their eyebrows.

Q. Is there any good news to report in the battle against aquatic invasive species?

A. This is one of the long-term battles. The good news is going to come slowly, and the good news is going to come out of research. For Minnesota, the good news is the Legislature helped create the Aquatic Invasive Species Research Institute at the University of Minnesota.

In the absence of having a remedy, our best outcome is just going to be slowing the spread, and we need that biological research to come up with a treatment to deal with things, especially with invasive species like zebra mussels.

Two of the (first) invaders were sea lamprey and purple loosestrife, and both had really devastating impacts at one point, and for both, we found chemical or biological treatments that have given us a defense.


Q. Looking across northwest Minnesota, there are at least five vacant conservation officer positions. What is the priority for filling those vacancies?

A. We're really dealing with three challenges in this regard. First is that much of our enforcement is funded by the Game and Fish Fund, and the campaign we made a couple of years ago to get the fee increase was also for our conservation officer program because if we don't have money in the Game and Fish Fund, we can't hire officers.

We had a period we couldn't fill vacancies. Now, we're filling the ranks both for biologists and officers.

The third hurdle is we've got a vast number of officers at the age they can retire. Even though we added 18 (in the past year), we lost 20, so we've got plans to have another academy hopefully later this year.

The last challenge is to find people who will stay put once we hire them. Frankly, it's a challenge to get someone to live up there in Roosevelt (on the Roseau-Lake of the Woods County border), so even if positions get filled for awhile, they move out. ... We're trying to figure out how to deal with that.

Q. What kinds of things has the DNR been able to accomplish since the license fee increase took effect?

A. The fee increase went into effect in March, and we had to get authorization from the Legislature to start spending that. So, July 1 was the first day we saw any financial benefit from fee increases. The Legislature authorized an additional $4 million a year in fish, wildlife and enforcement.

To date, you really haven't seen anything. We're 10 days into the biennium so we just got the opportunity to spend that money. What people will see shortly is we're in the process of filling a lot of vacancies that have been there for a long time.


Q. Any parting thoughts?

A. My sense is that what I heard with the groups we met with (in northwest Minnesota) is people feel much better right now about the DNR and our relationship with local units of government. I think we've turned the page on that.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send e-mail to .

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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