The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is proposing new terms for millions of dollars in outdoor aid to Minnesota after they witnessed damaging logging practices by the Department of Natural Resources.
DNR Wildlife Chief Dave Olfelt said on Thursday that the federal agency drafted the additional terms as part of a $26.4 million block grant established in July for habitat management in Minnesota’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). He said the two agencies are “working through” on the draft set of conditions to ensure compliance with the DNR.
“We’re working to make sure we’re doing it right,” Olfelt said. “They have legitimate interests…their role in this is to make sure the money is spent on conservation.”
The most recent two-year block grant to boost wildlife habitat, hunting, birding, hiking and other outdoor recreation at WMAs is tied to federal excise taxes levied by hunters. Under the so-called Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Act, Minnesota has received $398 million since 1939. DNR gains access to the money through biannual block grants on the condition that the land acquired or managed with the proceeds is managed for nature purposes.
In Minnesota, federal regulators’ increased oversight of the program stems from a formal complaint filed in 2019 by 28 of the DNR’s own wildlife managers and scientists. The group wrote to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen that a state-intensified logging program for the wood products industry negated DNR’s conservation responsibilities at WMAs. Since then, the call for change has been taken up by a group of retired wildlife managers, retired foresters and conservationists known as the WMA Stakeholders Network.
“The FBI is in control here,” said Craig Sterle, a retired DNR ranger and former president of the Minnesota division of the Izaak Walton League. “DNR may have to pay the price.”
Sterle said his group is frustrated with what members perceive as a slow response to their campaign. A central concern is that DNR wildlife managers responsible for promoting healthy populations of wild and non-wild species, local control lost about which to cut down on the many WMAs of the state.
Rich Staffon, another member of the stakeholder group, said the new terms on Minnesota’s use of Pittman-Robertson money indicate that federal fish and wildlife officials are moving in the right direction. “They certainly put some pretty significant restrictions on the DNR,” he said.
In February 2020, the FBI visited logging sites at three of Minnesota’s largest WMAs. According to the “findings and conclusions” from the field audits, wildlife habitats were affected in all three sites.
Red Lake WMA: Auditors photographed a wide swath of fallen black spruce that had been felled and left behind by loggers. With so much wood covering the forest floor, the mess “seriously reduces wildlife habitat and creates an area unusable for hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts,” the document said. place for wildlife and that DNR “has not identified any benefit or objective for the harvest of this type of stands”.
Whitewater WMA: Auditors found an oak stand that had been logged in 2017 and 2018 and has not been regenerated as oak. Instead, the site filled with invasive sea buckthorn, aspen, and ash trees.
Mille Lacs WMA: Auditors photographed an untidy plethora of post-logging “slash” piles that were expected to minimize forest regeneration and invite invasive plant species. At another logging site, long-term storage of aspen trunks caused “constant disturbance of nature”. At another site in Mille Lacs According to the report, loggers created a road with oversized berms that were ripe for erosion, sedimentation and introduction of invasive plant species.
In a broader written section of the report, Fish and Wildlife Service employees wrote that they struggled to find records regarding logging decisions, responsibilities and processes. “Therefore, (DNR Fish & Wildlife Division) appears to have ‘lost control of land’ acquired or managed with Pittman-Robertson funding and licensing revenue,” the report said.
The federal report also noted the lack of conservation plans and conservation targets for logging activities at the three WMAs. Olfelt of the DNR acknowledged that the agency needs to be clearer about the purposes of wildlife served by logging. He also said DNR has conservation plans that are outdated.
Olfelt said the USFWS wants “documentation that decisions are made for wildlife management purposes.”
In the list of conditions now listed for the DNR to receive Pittman-Robertson grant money over the next two years, DNR must describe how timber harvesting benefits native birds and mammals. The agency must also document that planned timber harvests exclude areas of high fish and wildlife value and irreplaceable forest species.
If loggers are planning access routes or landings, DNR must document how those changes will be designed, developed and restored using methods that preserve the natural environment essential for fish and wildlife. Another stipulated condition states that the USFWS must review any planned timber harvest on Critical Habitat acres before bidding on a logging contract.
Olfelt said one of the drafted terms calls on the DNR to document which WMA timber stands will be harvested each year. That’s one of the bugs the two sides are trying to work out, he said, as logging contracts give winning bidders the opportunity to economize over a number of years.
“We cannot predict which stands will be harvested in any given year,” said Olfelt.
In a joint statement released Thursday, DNR Commissioner Strommen and USFWS Regional Director Charlie Wooley said agency officials meet regularly to update grant terms.
“Grant agreements can be complex, and we work together, as we always have, to ensure that the DNR manages WMAs and documents that management in a manner that meets the agency’s funding requirements,” the statement said.