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Agreement reached on logging in Minnesota Wildlife Management Areas

With federal money involved, WMAs must prioritize wildlife habitat over timber industry appetite.

Minnesota Wildlife Management Area
The Minnesota DNR and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service have reached an agreement on logging in Minnesota state Wildlife Management Areas.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have reached an agreement over how and why logging will be conducted on Minnesota State Wildlife Management Areas and Aquatic Management Areas.

Pushed by some state elected leaders, DNR officials in recent years were moving to cut more trees in WMAs, as well as in state forests, to help feed the state’s timber industry appetite.

But critics, including many current and former wildlife managers, said the logging was poorly planned and overlooked wildlife habitat and public access, the primary purposes for having WMAs. Several state biologists said the planned level of intensive logging would jeopardize habitat for several species, including deer and bear in some areas. Critics also note that $4 from every Minnesota small game hunting license goes to the WMA fund.

Because federal sporting goods tax money was used to acquire the land for many WMAs, and because federal law requires that the money be spent on fish and wildlife habitat and recreation access — not timber management — the federal agency stepped in.

102321.O.DNT.huntertrailsC1.jpg
A map shows the 4 miles of hunter walking trails at Anchor Lake Wildlife Management Area in Eveleth.
Steve Kuchera / 2021 file / Duluth News Tribune

In November 2020, a coalition of more than a dozen conservation and environmental groups — Izaak Walton League chapters, the National Wildlife Federation and Duluth-based United Northern Sportsmen's Club — sent the DNR seeking a resolution of the issue. The two sides have been hashing out a compromise for nearly two years.

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First reported in the News Tribune in August 2019, the WMA logging issue has widened a rift within and outside the DNR between competing interests for the state’s forests, with DNR leaders, foresters and the timber industry on one side and DNR wildlife biologists, conservation groups and environmentalists on the other.

Wildlife managers say increased timber harvest could harm some species.

The agreement has been released only to specific media outlets that request it and not publicly announced by either agency. Apparently reached Dec. 5, it includes five major points:

  • Minnesota DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen and DNR Fish and Wildlife Director Dave Olfelt will provide a written communication to DNR staff that reaffirms agency direction and commitment to forest habitat management on WMAs and AMA/FMAs that is done to achieve fish and wildlife species and habitat management goals and objectives for each unit. … This message will also reaffirm DNR’s commitment to the requirements of the federal Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration grant programs funded by federal sporting goods taxes.
  • The DNR reaffirms its commitment to finish master plans for “major unit” WMAs and to develop a systematic framework for planning for the remaining WMAs. These plans will include public engagement and describe how active habitat management, including timber harvest, is used to achieve wildlife habitat management goals.
  • DNR will finalize its procedures document that clarifies the roles Fish and Wildlife, Forestry, and Ecological and Water Resources staff have in conducting forest habitat management activities on WMAs and AMAs.
  • DNR will provide training for Fish and Wildlife, Forestry, and Ecological and Water Resources staff to ensure understanding of the DNR’s planning framework, forest management policies and procedures, specific requirements that need to be followed on WMAs and AMAs, and the requirements of the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration and Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration grant program.
  • USFWS and DNR will develop protocols for field monitoring visits that assess forest habitat management activities on WMAs and AMAs to ensure they are achieving fish and wildlife management goals and are in compliance with federal grant program requirements. USFWS and DNR will jointly conduct the field monitoring visits in a way that promotes communication, learning and transparency.

Minnesota has 1,440 public WMAs totaling nearly 1.3 million acres, although only some of them are forested. The state has more than 700 AMAs covering some 700 miles of shoreline, much of it forested.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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