Fish & Wildlife Service relies on Minnesota DNR to correct course on logging

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is imposing new conditions on millions of dollars in outside aid in Minnesota after witnessing harmful logging practices from the Department of Natural Resources.

MNR Wildlife Chief Dave Olfelt said Thursday the federal agency drafted the additional conditions as part of a $ 26.4 million block grant established in July for habitat management in Minnesota Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). He said the two agencies were “working through” the draft set of conditions to ensure MNR compliance.

“We are working to make sure we get it right,” Olfelt said. “They have legitimate interests… their role is to make sure that the money is spent on wildlife management.”

The latest two-year block grant to boost wildlife habitat, hunting, birding, hiking and other outdoor recreation on WMAs is tied to federal excise taxes levied on hunters. Under the so-called Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Act, Minnesota has received $ 398 million since 1939. The MNR accesses the money through biennial block grants on condition that the land acquired or managed with the proceeds is managed for wildlife.

In Minnesota, increased oversight of the program by federal regulators stems from a formal complaint filed in 2019 by 28 of MNR’s own wildlife managers and scientists. The group wrote to MNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen saying that an intensified logging program for the wood products industry outweighed MNR’s wildlife management responsibilities over WMAs. Since then, the call for change has been echoed by a group of retired wildlife managers, retired foresters and conservationists known as the WMA Stakeholders Network.

“The authorities hold the strings in the wallet on this,” said Craig Sterle, a retired DNR forester and former president of the Minnesota division of the Izaak Walton League. “The DNR may have to pay the price. “

Sterle said his group was frustrated with what members see as a slow response to their campaign. A central concern is that MNR wildlife managers tasked with fostering healthy populations of game and other species have lost local control over wood stands that should be cut in the state’s many WMAs. .

Rich Staffon, another member of the stakeholder group, said Minnesota’s new terms of use of Pittman-Robertson silver indicate that federal fisheries and wildlife officials are moving in the right direction. “They definitely put some pretty big restrictions on the DNR,” he said.

In February 2020, federal authorities visited logging sites in three of Minnesota’s largest WMAs. According to the “findings and conclusions” from the field audits, wildlife habitats have been compromised at all three locations.

Red Lake WMA: Listeners photographed a large swath of downed black spruce trees that were cut down and left by loggers. With so much wood covering the forest floor, the mess “dramatically reduces wildlife habitat and creates an unusable area for hunters and other wildlife recreationists,” the document said. place for wildlife and that the MRN “has not identified any wildlife benefit or objective for harvesting these types of stands”. Auditors also noted that the forestry division of MNR “was planning to harvest, apparently for economic reasons.”

Whitewater WMA: Listeners found an oak stand harvested in 2017 and 2018 that did not regenerate as oak. Instead, the site became filled with invasive buckthorn, aspen, and ash.

Thousand Lakes WMA: Listeners photographed a botched glut of post-logging slash heaps believed to minimize forest regeneration and invite invasive plant species. At another mining site, the prolonged storage of aspen logs created a “continuing disturbance to wildlife”. , loggers built a road with oversized berms that were ripe for erosion, sedimentation and the introduction of invasive plant species, according to the report.

In a more general section of the report, Fish and Wildlife Service staff wrote that they were having difficulty finding documents relating to decisions, responsibilities and logging processes. “As a result, (DNR Fish & Wildlife Division) appears to have ‘lost control of land’ acquired or managed with Pittman-Robertson funding and license revenues,” the report said.

The federal report also noted the absence of wildlife plans and objectives for logging activities at the three WMAs. Olfelt of the DNR acknowledged that the agency needs to be clearer about the wildlife objectives served by logging. He also said that the MNR had wildlife management plans which are outdated.

Olfelt said the USFWS “wants documentation to show that decisions are made for wildlife management purposes.”

In the list of conditions now enumerated for MNR to receive Pittman-Robertson grant money over the next two years, MNR must describe how the timber harvest 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 types.

If loggers are planning access routes or landings, MNR must document how these changes will be designed, developed and restored using methods that preserve essential natural environments for fish and wildlife. Another drafted condition states that the USFWS must have an overview of any proposed timber harvest on “Critical Habitat” acres before bidding on a logging contract.

Olfelt said one of the drafted conditions calls for MNR to document which stands of WMA timber are going to be harvested each year. This is one of the bugs the two sides are trying to fix, he said, as logging contracts give successful bidders the ability to cut over several years.

“We cannot predict which stands will be harvested in any given year,” Olfelt said.

In a joint statement released Thursday, DNR Commissioner Strommen and USFWS Regional Director Charlie Wooley said agency officials meet regularly to update the terms of the grant.

“Grant agreements can be complicated, and we work together, as we always have, to ensure that MNR manages WMAs and documents this management, in a way that meets the funding requirements of the department,” indicates the press release.


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