Bonding bill battles harm WMA funding

Staff Writer

St. Paul — Hope for legislation that benefits outdoors-related
causes, like a bonding bill, to be passed by the session’s midpoint
has been dashed. Legislators last week left for their Easter break
— once a self-imposed deadline — having failed to reach agreement
on a bonding bill that will include money for a second round of the
Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and wildlife management
areas.

“I would give them a C grade at this point, because they haven’t
done last year’s work yet,” said Lance Ness, Fish and Wildlife
Legislative Alliance president. “They really haven’t accomplished
the work they should be doing.”

The conferees debating the bill have agreed on a target of $880
million, including $77 million for the DNR, said Bob Meier, DNR
legislative affairs coordinator.

But as the debate stretches on, WMAs apparently are losing out.
The first version of the bonding bill in the Senate included $10
million for WMAs; the House, $12 million. Gov. Tim Pawlenty had $12
million for WMAs in his budget, and conservation groups have
recommended as much as $22 million for them.

WMA funding now is a key difference between the House and
Senate. The Senate is proposing $5 million, and the official offer
from the House is $11 million.

“This goes to show, again, that we don’t think the legislators
are serious about conservation and the environment,” Ness said.
“We’re always the first to get cut.”

An idea brought forward last week as a discussion point would
slash the House’s offer by another $3.5 million, to $7.5 million,
according to John Tuma, lobbyist for the Minnesota Environmental
Partnership. The $3.5 million would go instead to metro parks.

“I think it’s a bad move as far as conservation groups are
concerned,” Tuma said. “The last time I checked, I don’t think you
can hunt in metro parks.”

Hunting aside, WMAs provide opportunities for bird watchers, and
protection of habitats like wetlands and grasslands.

Proponents say the state needs to add to its 1,300 management
areas because of increases in land prices, population, and pressure
on existing WMAs.

“This is the number one issue for a number of environmental
groups,” said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, a conferee who is
pushing the $11 million figure. “It’s not just for duck
hunters.”

Legislators still were discussing the bonding bill when Outdoor
News went to press Tuesday, but McNamara held out hope it would be
signed by the Ducks, Wetlands, and Clean Water Rally on Saturday,
and contain $11 million for WMAs.

“Can you imagine us going to the Capitol next Saturday having
just signed a bonding bill that slashed WMA funding?” McNamara
said.

The first committee deadline is next Tuesday, April 5. By that
time, a bill must have been heard in all policy committees in
either the House or Senate.

Antler restrictions proposed

A western Minnesota-based deer group is seeking to establish
antler-point restrictions in three permit areas in parts of Swift,
Big Stone, Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, and Yellow Medicine
counties.

Legislation introduced on behalf of the group by Sen. Gary
Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, and Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Madison,
would create an experimental restriction whereby hunters 18 years
old or older would be prohibited from killing antlered deer unless
they had at least four points on one side.

The restriction would be in permit areas 433, 446, and 447.

“We see too much pressure on the antlered portion of the deer
herd,” said Stan Patzer, a spokesman for the deer group. “We don’t
look at it as a system where we are going to be growing monster
trophies. We’re just asking to protect the smallest of the
bucks.”

Lou Cornicelli, DNR big game program coordinator, said the
proposal would reduce hunting opportunities.

“We haven’t scoped it out in that part of the state at all, and
we wouldn’t make such a recommendation without talking to the
public first,” Cornicelli said. “It would be a pretty dramatic
shift in management.”

Antlerless permits in the three permit areas are distributed via
a lottery.

Antler-point restrictions have been used in other states, and
are possible in northwest Minnesota, but the difference is
antlerless permits are available over the counter in the northwest.
So even with antler restrictions there, all hunters there still
could kill a doe.

Under Kubly and Peterson’s proposal: “We couldn’t offer doe
hunting to everyone who wanted it,” Cornicelli said. “You would
limit success rates for sure.”

Patzer acknowledged there would be fewer deer available to shoot
right away, but said the regulations would accomplish the goal of
protecting small bucks. Another benefit Patzer pointed to was that
hunters under 18 would be exempt from the restrictions.

Patzer’s group collected 450 signatures in support of the
proposal.

“We feel like there’s ample support for this,” he said.

The bill also would establish a two-day, youth-only (at least 12
years old, but under 15 years old) antlerless hunt in intensive
permit areas. The hunt would be held the weekend after the third
Thursday in October.

An elected commissioner?

The DNR commissioner would be elected by voters, rather than
appointed by the governor, if an idea set forth by Rep. Rick
Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, gains traction.

Hansen offered the measure last week as an amendment to a
dedicated funding bill in the Environment and Natural Resources
Committee.

It ultimately failed, but Hansen said he would continue working
on it. An elected commissioner who answers directly to the people
would provide better accountability for DNR funds and how they’re
spent, Hansen said.

“My intent here is not to be critical of the incumbent
leadership, or of any previous leadership,” Hansen said. “With the
key role that our outdoor heritage has on who we are as
Minnesotans, we need to elevate that up to being one of the top
elected officials in the state of Minnesota.”

Omnibus Game and Fish Bill

The DNR’s game and fish bill is progressing through both the
House and Senate.

The bill in the Senate passed the Environment and Natural
Resources Committee, and was referred to the State and Local
Government Operations Committee.

In the House, the bill will next be heard on the floor.

Each version has recently added amendments. In the Senate, one
amendment would prohibit hunting via the Internet. An amendment to
the House bill would lead to a complete prohibition of
spinning-wing decoys in the state, similar to the ban Arkansas is
planning for its 2005-2006 waterfowl season.

Dedicated funding

A proposal to dedicate one-quarter of 1 percent of the state
sales tax — half to game and fish, half to clean water — has
passed a key House committee.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, passed out
of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and was referred
to the Agriculture/Environment and Natural Resources Finance
Committee.

Its Senate companion hasn’t been heard yet.

In other committee news, Hackbarth’s Shooting Range Protection
Act passed the Environment and Natural Resources Committee and was
heard this week in Government Operations and Veterans Affairs
Committee.

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