The Voyageurs Wolf Project is at the forefront of conservation research and education in Minnesota. In just a few years of field work, the project already has revealed all sorts of stunning new information on wolves in summer months in Voyageurs National Park — what they eat, where they roam and how they interact. The researchers share their findings with thousands of loyal followers on social media.
The projects’ findings, some entirely new to wolf research, have been highlighted in several News Tribune stories, including this one published in August. But the project will run out of money within a few months if an internal battle in the Minnesota Legislature isn’t resolved soon.
The wolf project is one of 77 conservation efforts across Minnesota that was supposed to get funding through the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund this year. A panel of citizen conservationists and state lawmakers — the Legislative and Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources — decides form myriad requests on which deserve funding. The money comes from the state’s profits on the lottery, as approved by voters back in 1988.
Becca Nash, director of the LCCMR, said this year’s projects total nearly $61.4 million statewide (essentially the interest earned off the $1 billion trust fund.) That includes $575,000 for the Voyageurs Wolf project for the next three years.
But that won’t happen if the Minnesota Legislature doesn’t pass a bill authorizing the spending. The money doesn't come from the usual taxpayer coffers. By order of the state constitution, it can’t be used for any other purpose, such as balancing the state budget. The legislative approval had for many years been considered more oversight than legislative, usually singing off on what the LCCMR approved.
But the Republican Senate majority says no bill will come unless it includes money for rural wastewater treatment projects. Meanwhile, Democrats who run the House say that’s not what the Trust Fund is for, and they have refused to accept the sewage projects in their version of the bill, creating the stalemate.
The battle started two years ago when environmental groups filed a lawsuit that accused Republican lawmakers of an unconstitutional raid on the environmental trust fund to pay for wastewater infrastructure projects typically paid for through bonding bills. The lawsuit was dropped when another bill funded the wastewater projects with the usual state bonds.
But the issue resurfaced when Republicans again stuck wastewater projects into the Senate version of the conservation bill. The LCCMR did not make its formal recommendations this year because wastewater treatment projects were added to the list by state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, a commission member and chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.
In April, Ingebrigtsen sent House DFLers a letter saying the Senate simply will not have an LCCMR funding bill this year. And that appears to be final.
Researchers and conservation groups across the state are asking supporters to call and write their legislators and the key players to resolve their differences and pass an LCCMR conservation funding bill.
The Legislature must adjourn by May 18 unless a special session is called.