It’s Time To Get In Line For Our Wildlife

Soon it will be January of an odd-numbered year. For those who follow politics, and the result of politics—government—it is the beginning of the time when laws are made. They’ll be made in the North Dakotas by the State Legislature. They’ll be made in Washington by the United States Congress. In Washington, there haven’t been many laws made for the last few years, because of a stalemate between the two political parties. Some will argue that making no laws is a good thing, but that’s a cynical argument, because funding for my Social Security check, for repairs to our highways, for paychecks for our sailors and soldiers, for disaster payments and crop insurance for our farmers and for funding the all the federal agencies who watch over our public lands, doesn’t happen unless a law is made, in the form of a piece of legislation called a bill, voted on and approved by members of Congress and signed by our president.

In North Dakota, those of us who enjoy the outdoors and are concerned about the impacts of rapid development on the fragile landscape of western North Dakota, will be watching the North Dakota Legislature.

We’re all aware that a natural resource amendment to the North Dakota Constitution was soundly walloped at the polls by the voters in the November election. One of my part-time gigs these days is writing a monthly article about oil’s impact on the North Dakota Badlands for a magazine called Dakota Country. The editor of that magazine is a fellow named Bill Mitzel. He started it from scratch more than 30 years ago, I think, and it was just a newsprint tabloid for the first few years, but it has grown into a successful glossy monthly magazine of more than hundred pages each issue. It focuses on hunting and fishing and life in the outdoors in North and South Dakota, and Bill is avid at both those sports.

Lately, he has been troubled by what he sees as threats to our wildlife and the places they live. So much so that he added a semi-political column by me to the magazine. The politics in my monthly column is not partisan, it is the politics of, generally, good and evil in the outdoors.

Last month I wrote about the Environmental Protection Agency, and how important it is to North Dakota right now. In the same issue, Mitzel printed several articles urging readers to support Measure 5 on the November ballot. You’ll recall that was the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment to the North Dakota Constitution, which lost at the polls by an 80-20 margin.    Mitzel also appeared in a television ad promoting the measure, which ran on statewide television in September and October. Well, that combination of things set off a firestorm. A number of Mitzel’s readers, mostly a pretty conservative hook and bullet crowd, went nuts on him.

I walked into the Dakota Country office one day in October as the answering machine was spitting out subscription cancellations it had saved up over the lunch hour, people who were punishing the Mitzels for publishing articles in his magazine defending the request to use a small percentage of the state’s oil extraction tax for natural resource conservation. I haven’t yet figured out why readers of his magazine would be opposed to that, but obviously an awful lot of them believed the lies, spread by the oil industry, that the sky would fall if we passed the Clean Water, Wildlife and Parks Amendment.

The conservation organizations in our state, of which you and I are members, for the most part, do a wonderful job of making habitat and protecting wildlife, but they do a lousy job at politics. And the margin of defeat for their measure gives me cause for some nervousness as we approach the upcoming Legislative Session. It is going to be awfully easy for Legislators to rub that defeat in the face of the conservation lobbyists when bills affecting wildlife come before Legislative committees.

In reality, it is the credibility of the lobbyists for the state’s Chamber of Commerce and North Dakota Petroleum Council that should be called into question, because the men and women wearing Legislators’ badges aren’t stupid—they know how badly those two groups distorted the good intentions of the conservation groups in order to defeat Measure 5. But they also saw how ineffectual the conservation lobbyists were in their defense and promotion of the measure, and frankly, in politics, it is the winners who get served, because politicians love to be on the winning side. At least those I know, including those down the hall from the Legislature, and in the Capitol tower, do.

Big Oil rules in North Dakota politics these days, because oil will provide a good chunk of the money to be appropriated by the 2015 session of the North Dakota Legislature, and oil lobbyists, of which there will be many this year, will be reminding Legislators of that on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

To be sure, Legislators have the chance to do some really good things for our state this year, thanks to that oil money. The Governor came riding in on a white horse last fall and tossed out a $20 million bundle of cash to be added to what is a woefully under-funded state Outdoor Heritage Fund. You can just do that in North Dakota these days. $20 million is just a drop in the state’s $15 billion budget bucket. No one will ever miss it. That’s the kind of change that will just slide right through a hole in the pocket of the Appropriations Committee chairman, and no one will notice. The Governor said he will put that extra $20 million in his budget request to the Legislature. We’ll see how eager those Appropriations Committee chairmen are to keep it there.

Thing is, we really need to do more than that. Much more. Just ask thirty or forty thousand deer hunters who did not get a license this year, because we’ve gone from a high of nearly 150,000 annual deer tags to a near-record low of less than 50,000 in just five years, and they just happen to be the same five years that two very important things happened in our state—the CRP program, which provided much of the habitat and food for our deer population, went into a death spiral, and an oil boom, which fragments what habitat remains, took over management of the western half of our state. Weather, in the form of three bad winters, played a role, as the Game and Fish Department has told us ad nauseum as they try to explain why we’ve gone from an unlimited supply of deer tags to a lottery in which only half the applicants are successful, in just five years. Another example: in 2007, we issued almost 6,100 licenses to hunt antelope in North Dakota. In 2014, just seven years later, we issued just 250. And we all know that antelope range is Oil Country.

The Game and Fish Department would have been the biggest winner if Measure 5 had passed (not those big, bad out-of-state conservations organizations you heard about all fall), and I hope the Governor gives Department and Division heads out there at Game and Fish permission to work closely with the Legislature this year to make sure that AT LEAST $20 million is added to the Outdoor Heritage Fund. Our deer population and its management are in a crisis mode right now, as witnessed by the fact that in 2015 there will still be tens of thousands of hunters who won’t get a deer license. This is the most critical time for our deer population and the men and women who hunt them in our state’s history. And for all the other critters who inhabit the land.

Forever, the state’s Game and Fish Department has existed on a self-sufficiency basis, using license fees to pay for the job they do for us. But the time has come for a boost from the state’s oil tax-rich General Fund. No one can argue that the oil industry has pretty much been given free rein by our state’s elected officials to manage their own growth. The growth has been spectacular, as has the growth to the State General Fund. And no one can argue that the oil industry has not had some impact on wildlife population, particularly big game. So, no one can argue that some of that money should not be used for conservation, to help those critters.

It’s not likely to happen, though, at least in any direct way. At a Game and Fish Advisory Board meeting this week, I asked Terry Steinwand, Director of the Game and Fish Department, if he had considered asking for General Funds to enhance the Department’s budget in the upcoming biennium. It was a question Steinwand did not want to hear, especially in front of 200 hunters in attendance at the meeting, about half of who probably did not get a deer license this year. Steinwand dodged the question with two bad answers:

  • First, he said that the Game and Fish Department had always existed without taking any state General Fund money, and he kind of liked it that way. Well, that’s a stupid answer, because when the state’s wildlife are in crisis mode, you swallow your pride and take whatever money you can get. Especially when there’s plenty of it to go around.
  • Second, he said that was a policy decision and would have to be made by the Legislature. I wanted to just scream at him “Terry, the Legislature is not going to come out to your office and say “Hey, would you like another $50 million or so in your budget?”

But I knew his problem. He works for the Governor and he will have to be happy with what the Governor puts in his budget. Governors hate it when agency heads try to bust their budgets. I know. I did it a few times. Thing is, though, if you’re careful how you do it, and the right Legislators are on your side, it works.

As it stands now, the Game and Fish Department might be able to get its hands on some of the $20 million enhancement the Governor has proposed for the Outdoor Heritage fund, but that is woefully inadequate.

What Steinwand needs is $50 million or so a year to begin a statewide replacement for the CRP program, the federal farm program that brought us all the wildlife habitat that caused us to see record harvests of virtually all species of game in North Dakota, because we had record populations of game to harvest. That program is rapidly going away, and with it the habitat the critters need.

That’s what Measure 5 would have done for us. And so it is going to be easy for the politicians to argue that the people have rejected that idea already. Which just isn’t true. It was the lying liars at the state Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council who won the day in November. They managed to convince most of North Dakota, including most of our hunters, that Measure 5 was a bad thing. And the sponsors were so politically inept that they allowed the bad guys to win that one.

So, the same sportsmen and women who voted against Measure 5 (a lot of them because they didn’t believe the idea should be enshrined in the Constitution) need to line up at Legislative Committee meetings and make a case for general funds for the Game and Fish Department.

We’ve had a “perfect storm” of bad winters, loss of CRP and an oil boom, and that has taken its toll. Now we need to use some of these new dollars flowing into the state’s treasury to do what we couldn’t do just a few years ago.

That’s why the conservation organizations put Measure 5 on the ballot. The money exists today to do things we could never have done for our state before. Never. Now, because we can, we should. Problem is, as I said earlier, the organizations which would normally have their lobbyists in front of those committees asking for help in the coming Legislative session are the same ones who took a shellacking at the polls on Measure 5, and their credibility is being called into question.

Sure, they did some things wrong. Maybe their measure wasn’t written well enough for average North Dakotans to understand. Maybe they asked for too much money. Maybe they shouldn’t have tried to put their program into the Constitution, instead of state law. Maybe the opposition waged a disgustingly dishonest campaign. And maybe, as I said earlier, they just aren’t very good at politics. Whatever, they are going to need help at the North Dakota Capitol this session. I hope the people who love the outdoors in North Dakota will be there.

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