REGIONAL— Thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat in northern Minnesota could be affected as a result of a decision by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to include Wildlife …
REGIONAL— Thousands of acres of prime wildlife habitat in northern Minnesota could be affected as a result of a decision by the state’s Department of Natural Resources to include Wildlife Management Areas, WMAs, in an initiative to boost timber harvest in the region.
That’s according to 28 DNR wildlife managers from across the state, who signed a letter to DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen last month, outlining their concerns over what the DNR calls its Sustainable Timber Harvest Initiative, or STHI.
The DNR manages about 1.3 million acres in roughly 1,500 WMAs statewide. About 400,000 of those acres are forested, located in northern Minnesota, and those are the lands that wildlife officials worry could be most impacted by the new harvest initiative.
While the wildlife managers stated in their letter that it may be possible to meet the DNR’s recently-adopted goal of harvesting approximately 900,000 cords of wood annually from the state’s forests, they challenge some of the ways in which the agency has portrayed the plan. “We do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year timber plan is ‘beneficial to wildlife,’ especially on WMAs,” the managers wrote. Managers expressed concern that old forest, which benefits many species of wildlife, will be lost. And they cite cases where new harvest plans are eliminating prime oak stands, which provide key wildlife food for a number of species, and could eliminate critical winter cover for whitetail deer in places like northern St. Louis County.
“A very high percentage of older aspen stands on forested WMA land were selected to meet timber goals,” noted the letter, which discussed impacts to the Tower work area among many others. “Older aspen (50+) with a significant conifer component is critical for winter deer and moose habitat. Stands aged 40-50 years old do not develop a balsam fir component by age 50. This rotation age and level of harvest, in the aspen covertype, will eliminate critical habitat for wintering deer, denning and resting habitat for fisher and marten and numerous other cavity-dwellers (e.g. bats, songbirds, ducks, owls, squirrels, etc.).”
The six-page letter from managers contends that the timber harvest increase approved last year by the DNR— under pressure from the state’s wood products industry— also failed to adequately address the needs of species that require large chunks of habitat. “Area-sensitive species need large areas, not small clumps of dispersed wildlife habitat fragments,” wrote the managers.
The wildlife professionals say they’re committed to implementing whatever harvest plans the agency ultimately approves. “However, we also feel that expression of our concerns is not only our public trust responsibility, but also is consistent with the department goals of supporting sound science, encouraging transparency and healthy discussion, and is consistent with a culture of respect.”
The letter has certainly caught the attention of top DNR leadership in St. Paul. “It’s unusual for us to receive a memo along these lines,” acknowledged Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore, who said she recognizes that the changes the agency has implemented have ruffled feathers with some. “This does represent a change in how we approach decision-making,” she said. “As leaders in the DNR, we appreciate that change can be difficult for people.”
But Naramore says that the DNR conducted “robust and in-depth” discussions with staff from many of the department’s disciplines in developing the STHI, and that the agency’s leadership is confident that the plan will maintain wildlife habitat and many other values of the forest that Minnesotans have come to expect. “We assume that trees will grow longer on WMAs than on other timber lands,” said Naramore. “We recognize that there is generally a desire for older trees on WMAs. We looked really hard at those habitat values as we did the analysis.”
While the boost in timber harvest had been pushed primarily by the wood products industry, Naramore portrayed the change as an effort to give the agency a more consistent framework for its management decisions. In the past, different DNR work areas often had considerable flexibility in how they managed forestlands and wildlife habitat and it sometimes led to considerably different approaches. Naramore said some flexibility will still remain as field staff develop their 10-year harvest plans.
In their letter, the wildlife managers do express their concern about the loss of flexibility. While WMA acres are intended primarily for wildlife management, they have long been a part of the state’s commercial timber harvest program. But managers fear they’ve lost control over where harvest takes place on WMAs and argue that “harvest should be employed where there will be a clear need and benefit to harvest, such as maintenance of open landscapes.” They also want more say over what types of stands are subject to harvest. They say that strict area-specific goals set for some cover types, such as oak, are detrimental to wildlife habitat. The wildlife managers also want stands identified for harvest within WMAs to be appraised and sold last, unless given a higher priority by the wildlife manager. Such an approach would likely allow wildlife managers to spare some valuable stands on WMAs if it turns out they are not needed to meet cordage goals.
Top DNR leadership in St. Paul offered a mixed message in a written response to the concerns of wildlife managers. In a July 26 reply, Commissioner Sarah Strommen acknowledged that the new harvest increase does “narrow the decision space for area managers.” She added that the reduction in flexibility was done intentionally “to foster consistency, efficiency, and effectiveness in our forest management, while also reducing conflict at the field level.”
Strommen argues that foresters have also seen a reduction in autonomy, while noting that some field-level discretion to make adjustments remains.
Strommen also contends that the agency’s new harvest goals are designed to be adaptive and that it will be subject to a formal “check-in” after five years to evaluate short-term outcomes of modeling undertaken as part of the plan. “We will be monitoring implementation continually and seeking to learn from any issues that emerge through our established dispute resolution processes,” wrote Strommen. “I am confident the approach we are using will, over time, result in better outcomes for all of our forest management values.”
Wildlife officials were not able to respond to comments from Strommen or Naramore. Wildlife managers have been directed not to comment to the media, but to send all questions to the St. Paul office. Some have likened the directive to a “gag order” but Naramore said the directive was intended to provide a “coherent and efficient” response to media inquiries.
A significant wildlife resource
Minnesota’s WMA system is one of the largest in the U.S., and forms the backbone of the DNR’s wildlife management efforts in the state. Much of the land now contained within WMAs was acquired by the DNR’s wildlife division over the past 70 years, the bulk of it from license fees from hunters, buyers of critical habitat license plates, and other sources of outdoor-focused recreation dollars, such as the Reinvest in Minnesota program and the Outdoor Heritage Fund. A number of conservation groups also regularly donate funds and land to create and expand WMAs.
The state’s WMAs provide opportunities for hunting, fishing, trapping, and wildlife watching, making them a valuable component of the state’s billion-dollar hunting and wildlife watching industry. Hundreds of thousands of hunters use these public wildlife lands, including those seeking pheasants, waterfowl, deer, ruffed grouse, wild turkey, rabbits, and squirrels. Many more Minnesotans use the areas for other forms of outdoor recreation, particularly wildlife watching. According to the DNR, 52 percent of Minnesota residents watch wildlife, the highest participation rate in the country.
While WMAs have long been open to logging, timber harvest has been used primarily as a management tool to improve wildlife habitat. Wildlife managers acknowledge that timber harvest can be beneficial to wildlife, but not in every instance and not when valuable wildlife habitat is being lost as part of an otherwise unrelated goal to boost harvest levels.
While internal grumbling over DNR policy decisions is nothing new, the letter signed by 28 wildlife managers suggests the new policy is highly troubling to those in the DNR’s wildlife division. Don Arnosti, a long-time activist on forest management policy, most recently with the Minnesota Izaak Walton League, said he can’t remember another time when so many DNR officials openly took issue with official policy. “It’s unprecedented in my experience that they took this step, in a way that risks their careers,” said Arnosti. “In my 30-plus years of activism and in my role with numerous environmental organizations and being intimately involved with timber harvest policy, I have never seen this kind of a letter from field staff in the DNR. It’s more than a yellow flag. It’s a red alert.”
While the DNR directive on media communications means wildlife officials are unable to talk about their concerns publicly, some retired wildlife officials have done so. Jerry Maertens, who spent 35 years with the DNR managing wildlife in northwestern Minnesota, said he shares the view of his former colleagues in the wildlife division and thinks their request for more flexibility is reasonable. “Essentially, they’re just asking for more input and the ability to nix something if they don’t feel it is beneficial to wildlife. Unfortunately, Strommen’s memo in response didn’t seem to make that available.”
Wildlife officials within the DNR aren’t the only ones with concerns about the agency’s shift in focus to more intensive harvest and shorter forest stand rotations. Biologists with the Leech Lake Band’s Division of Resource Management raised concerns of their own in a July 17 letter to Strommen commenting on the DNR’s duck management plan. “The DNR’s recent move to shorten forest rotation to 40 years is very concerning and unsustainable on a number of fronts,” wrote Rich Robinson, the director of the band’s DRM. “Even aspen does not get large enough or start to form quality cavities for waterfowl size species until it has reached 60-plus years of age. Other tree species take even longer.” Robinson argued that about three-quarters of the species found in northern Minnesota’s forests do best when stands are mature and diverse and he urged the DNR to work with the band within reservation boundaries to extend rotations and promote forest diversity.