Tight budget crimps DNR wildlife programs

On windless days in early spring, Tom Rusch is sometimes faced with a choice. Does he run a ruffed grouse drumming survey, or does he do a prescribed burn to benefit brushland habitat for sharp-tailed grouse?...

On windless days in early spring, Tom Rusch is sometimes faced with a choice. Does he run a ruffed grouse drumming survey, or does he do a prescribed burn to benefit brushland habitat for sharp-tailed grouse?

Rusch is area wildlife manager at Tower for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, one of a half-dozen such managers across Northeastern Minnesota. A tight budget already forces him to make tough choices, and the DNR's fish and game budget is likely to get tighter.

"Field staff is at a premium, and we're working with a lot of critters and habitat types," Rusch said.

The DNR's tight budget is a bit ironic, since voters in November passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy agreement, which will generate about $80 million annually for wildlife and wildlife habitat. But that money won't go into the DNR budget, which is about $65 million annually for the Fish and Wildlife Division. The amendment money will be designated for projects, some of which probably will be carried out or supervised by DNR employees.

You might think the DNR's budget is tight primarily because of the state's $5 billion budget shortfall, but that's only part of the story. The Fish and Game budget gets only about $2 million of its $65 million from the state's general fund. Most of the revenue comes from those of us who hunt and fish, through license sales.


That's where things are getting tight, said Dave Schad, director of the DNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife. The last general license fee increase occurred in 2001. License fees usually are increased every six to eight years, Schad said.

In addition, the DNR's game and fish fund will lose about $3.5 million annually as a result of two recent changes, Schad said. One is doing away with the popular all-season buck license for deer hunting, and the other is a new conservation license for anglers, allowing them to buy a less expensive license and keep fewer fish.

But license fee increases are unlikely.

"I know the agency isn't going to talk about license fee increases," said Tim Goeman, DNR regional fisheries supervisor at Grand Rapids. "In the economic times we're in, it's not something a legislator is going to look at as a high priority."


Already, the DNR's fisheries and wildlife staff is thin. Fisheries staff is down about 12 to 15 positions statewide, said Don Schreiner, DNR Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor at French River. The fisheries section is anticipating a 10 percent reduction in work force, Schreiner said.

"By July 1, we need to be down another six to 10 [statewide]," Schreiner said. "Our leadership folks have seen this coming and haven't been filling positions since about July."

Across Northeastern Minnesota, the DNR is holding open five full-time positions from about 60, Goeman said. He anticipates holding open another three or four positions in the next two years as current employees retire.


Just as Rusch must make hard decisions with wildlife tasks in Tower, Schreiner and other fisheries managers must make tough calls with fisheries work. That's particularly true in the summer, when fisheries supervisors need to add temporary and seasonal workers.

"It affects creel clerk positions, student interns, people to help with walleye trapping, checking spawning traps for rainbows," Schreiner said.

Creel clerks interview anglers as they leave the water to get an idea of fishing success.

"Are we fully meeting our mission with the people we have? We're doing it, but with these people, at this level, it's not a sustainable thing. We're trying to do too much with the budget we have," said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids.

"It forces us to re-evaluate our priorities," the DNR's Goeman said. "Everything that we do has value. We're just forced to rank those things. Somewhere, something has to give."


The influx of money from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment probably will mean more habitat projects to be conducted by the DNR and other resource agencies. DNR field staffers are concerned about having enough personnel to carry out the projects.

"The common refrain is not to use that money for more employees," Rusch said. "I understand that. But at the same time, you don't just go down the road and dump money into the woods. Contracts need to be written. Contractors need to be supervised. Or we need to do the work ourselves."


Schreiner has concerns, too, about additional habitat work that might result from the Clean Water, Land and Legacy amendment funds.

"I think that if we don't get some sort of personnel to help administer and consult on the habitat projects, our normal work is going to be overwhelmed by this," he said. "In the long run, it's going to be good. ... It's going to have to evolve."

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