DNR Bashing By BOTH Insiders and Outsiders

Lately it seems the Minnesota DNR is sure receiving its fair share of bashing from its critics.   Poor rules, poor management practices, a direction for the future that is not necessarily conducive to the so-called “average sportsman.”   Such is the nature, I suppose, of a public agency charged with ensuring the viability of our outdoor fun.

Outsiders Looking In

Dennis Anderson took his swipe at the DNR by detailing how the chief DNR official, Gene Merriam has gone out of his way to hunt not as the common man would.   Instead, his tenure at the DNR has been filled with missed opportunities to develop and further encourage our shooting sports.   Read more HERE.

Just a few days earlier Ron Schara described the silliness of certain game transport laws requiring the hunter to leave certain appendages attached to the carcass for no other reason than to allow officials to verify the species or the gender.   Read more HERE.

Insiders Looking Within

Perhaps what is most biting, however, is the criticism levied from within the organization.   As one of his last acts before retirement, Gordy Forester, assistant regional wildlife supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently took these parting shots in an e-mail broadcast to over 300 of his colleagues.   Read on, as I think the e-mail speaks largely for itself:

To: Fish, Wildlife and Ecological Services Staff

I wanted to say farewell to all of my fellow Fisheries, Wildlife and Eco personnel who have been my friends and co-workers for 30 plus years. It’s been a long time, but time catches up with all of us in the end.

When my contemporaries and I started in the early to mid-’70s we had a passion, not just for hunting and fishing but for all of the environment. We knew/know all too well the interconnectedness of the Land, Air, Water and the creatures that depend on them. We’ve tried our best over the years to manage these resources for the benefit of all the people of the state. But narrowly focused interest groups now wish to dictate all that we do. Whether it’s good science is less important than if it is good politics. I made an effort a year ago to let our Director know that the professionalism and integrity of staff were being undermined by the politicization of DNR. I was cut off and instructed to write a letter of apology, doesn’t everyone know that wildlifers just can’t compromise or work well with other groups? I don’t believe the situation has demonstratively improved since my little outburst last year.

The thing that has been most disconcerting to me is that there is nothing on paper detailing the kind of actions that St. Paul clearly expects. When a regional or area team comes up with a proposed action or position that everyone locally agrees on across discipline lines, it certainly seems that if the Commissioners office doesn’t agree then it is tabled or sent back until the answer wanted is eventually recommended. At other times field staff, in contravention of their best judgment, make a recommendation because they are told to do so, e.g. Turkey releases in Northwestern Minnesota or increasing stocking rates of Walleye. I suspect there are others.

We have been told to "don’t worry about taking notes [at meetings], we only have to document action items." To me it seems obvious that the politicians in Central Office don’t want the public to know very much of what goes on or to have their fingerprints on the decisions that are made but rather point the finger at field staff and say as did the Director that it was field staff that came up with the proposal for increasing the stocking rates for Walleye.

We all know that by its very nature DNR decisions are political but in previous administrations politics was mostly a St. Paul office exercise and field staff and biologists were free to make their opinions known at least in house. No more, it has been made abundantly clear to me that I am an executive branch employee and work for the Governor not the resource, not the sportsmen, not the people of the state. It seems pretty Kafkaesque to report to St. Paul every time you have a media contact, or get approval for the simplest news release. If you keep abreast of what is happening in other states and at the Federal level you will see that these kind of tactics are pervasive and to me very chilling. What this tells me is that my professional judgments are not trusted. I hope you all can keep making the point that we should be doing the right thing not the politically expedient. I leave you with the hope that you can all rise in the morning and live with the face that stares back at you from the bathroom mirror for the recommendation that you make.

I fear that when politics and public opinion begin to overshadow sound, proven wildlife management philosophies and decisions we should all be very concerned.   Our future is in this state agency’s hands and we deserve to see some prudent redirection of priorities.

© 2005 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

It’s Crunch Time Again…So Watch Out!

Last night I was driving home late when all of a sudden a deer jumped out in front of the small compact car I happened to be navigating.   Instinctively, I locked the brakes and quickly steered left…and then slowly steered back right again to just barely avoid missing the hind hooves as the deer ran off into the ditch.

It was a close call…but I dare say that over the years I’ve had several even closer calls and been lucky then, too.   Only once in over 27 years of driving have I hit a deer with a vehicle…and technically, that deer hit me…but more on that a bit later.   This time both the deer and I left the scene unscathed…even though I’m sure it took a minute or two for both of our heart rates to settle back down to a normal pace as a result of the near miss.

In case you didn’t know it, we are now heading into one of the critical time periods of the year for deer mortality, particularly for whitetail does.   In the spring when does prepare for the birthing activity they tend to disperse and find areas of more seclusion – so, what this means for drivers is the deer are on the move because of this general restlessness.   And whenever deer are on the move it can spell big trouble for motorists if they’re not aware.

There’s a great web site on vehicle/deer collisions called www.DeerCrash.com.   Essentially this site is a consortium of several Midwestern states and the efforts underway by their Transportation Departments to reduce property damage accidents as a result of deer on the highways.   Here you will find information on how states are sharing information from roadway design to how to most effectively use signage to alert motorists.   In a nutshell, the stats on car/deer accidents are staggering.   Nationally over 300 people die each year as a result of these crashes.

(As an aside, please refer to my blog of November 21, 2004, where I described a car accident I responded to where two people died in a fiery crash as a result of a deer collision)

So, did I do the right thing last night when I was driving by steering to avoid the deer?   Well, according to the Insurance Information Institute I did right be braking firmly…but I was wrong in steering to avoid any collision.   In most cases I would have to agree with that assessment, but had I not veered quickly the accident WOULD have occurred.   The problem is when you steer quickly at high speeds (or even braking speeds) you can quickly lose control of your car which can cause even more problems.

Maneuvering so your car ends up in the ditch is hardly ever a good option…and worse is losing control so you end up careening into oncoming traffic.   Most experts agree that a motorist is better off simply hitting the deer and dealing with the consequences than trying to avoid that fate by taking aggressive driving actions.

I might also recommend that if you have never taken a defensive driving course it would be wise to find one in your area.   No matter how experienced a driver you think you are…you will learn plenty at one of these courses to increase your ability to avoid a bad situation.   I took a course several years back (as part of my ambulance driver training) and it was so intense that I am confident that the skills learned back then will stick with me for most of my remaining driving career.

Six years ago, however, I was driving and not quite so lucky.   My speed was about 30mph as I was in a residential area of a small city.   I had more reason to expect a kid darting out from playing in a yard or a dog wandering off the sidewalk, than I did a deer…but it happened.   I was driving my late model Mustang when suddenly this whitetail buck darted out and ran smack into my driver’s side door.   The antler actually took a small chip out of my side window only inches from my head.   Yes, it startled me.   I immediately looked in the mirror and the deer was lying on the road…but then slowly it staggered to its feet…and pranced off shaking some of the cobwebs out of its head.   I now had a damaged window and a dented car door that needed replacing.   In this case there was no amount of maneuvering that could have avoided this particular accident.

And so my point is deer accidents will happen…and realize they can happen at any time of the year, too.   But during the late spring and the fall seasons is when they tend to peak…so it pays to be safe and be extra aware at these times.   It also makes good sense to review how you SHOULD react in a split second when faced with an incident that could require a life or death decision.

© 2005 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.

Vanishing Fencelines On The Farmscape

This morning as I was driving to work I happened to notice a farm field that was huge by local standards…my guess is it was at least 200 acres in size.   A single field…one continuous patch of black dirt.   Oh sure, I had driven by this same field hundreds of time before…but this time I wondered where did all the fencelines go?

Surely when this farm was first settled 150+ years ago it did not have one big field.   More than likely this farm contained some woods, some pasture, and cropland that was nowhere near the size it is today.   The old farm had a certain character and a fingerprint that was left by the original homesteaders…but no more.

Indeed, slowly but ever so surely that character of the farm landscape is disappearing.   And much to the chagrin of sportsmen, each time a fenceline is ripped out to create an even bigger field it affects our success.   The bottom line is a fenceline means habitat for wildlife, but often it means much more.

For instance, take this example: Assume that on either side of a fenceline there is a grassy area of 3 feet.   That makes a total grassy area of a strip 6 feet wide (considering both sides of the fence).   Typically farmers can’t plow right up to a fence…so there is some area for grass and brushy growth to occur.

Okay, now let’s assume this fence is ¼ mile long which is common on most split sections.   Knowing there is 5,280 feet to a mile…this equates out to roughly a fenceline consisting of a distance of 1,320 feet long.   Multiply this distance by a swath of land 6 feet wide and you have 7,920 square feet of fenceline habitat (which amounts to almost 1/5th of an acre).   Doesn’t sound like much, but let me assure you that is some priceless habitat for both game and non-game species alike.

To the farmer, the fenceline means inconvenience.   Bigger equipment and the need to get the fields planted quicker almost necessitates removing the old fencelines to create this convenience.   In fact, removing fencelines of some bygone farming era has become commonplace and likely will continue for the foreseeable future.

Personally, I’m saddened by seeing all the fences go.   Certainly I don’t begrudge the farmer for doing what is necessary for the sake of progress…but that doesn’t mean I care to see it happen before my eyes, either.   While old, unkempt fencelines may continue to benefit wildlife by offering security and sometimes food…they often are viewed as an eyesore by the farmer who strives for ways to “improve” their property by rolling up the barbed wire and removing the old wooden posts.

As a sportsman I use fencelines as a predictor of where animals might travel.   For instance, one of the best fox trapping locations is the basic dirt-hole set which is generally placed in close proximity to a fenceline.   In most cases, animals whether they are deer, fox, raccoon, skunk…you name it…all tend to travel fencelines.   As a trapper hoping to lure a critter into a set…you want the trap placed near where these animals will likely travel.

Likewise, if you’re a deer hunter.   More often than not you will see deer travel certain corridors and if these can be adjacent to a fenceline that is where the deer tend to travel.   Maybe it’s a certain security for the deer in being somewhat hidden by the fence.   I don’t know.   But often when I see a dead deer lying along side the road after being hit by a car when there is no nearby woods…there usually IS a fenceline.   What does that tell you?

Fortunately, fencelines that serve as property line dividers will likely endure…so I don’t think there will be the complete elimination of fencelines on the farmscape.   Still, if you’ve hunted or trapped an area for any amount of time you will see these subtle changes to the land that do not always further our sporting interests.

Maybe it’s time to offer farmers some incentive to keep interior fencelines on their property when they no longer serve an economic purpose (such as dividing property ownership interests).   Perhaps the motivation of some money or tax breaks could offset the inconvenience of having to make a few extra turns in the field come planting or harvest time.   I hate to see our rural countryside continue to lose these all-important land artifacts of the past…and for the sake of wildlife, they hate to see it happen, too.

© 2005 Jim Braaten.  All Rights Reserved.   No Reproduction without Prior Permission.