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License fee hike would support Park Rapids DNR Wildlife Office

Thorson said there are more reports of grey foxes than red foxes in the Park Rapids area. DNR staff captured this photo of a red fox with her brood on Mother's Day.

Hunters, trappers and wildlife watchers in Hubbard, Wadena, Cass, Becker and Clearwater counties benefit from the efforts of Park Rapids wildlife staff.

Erik Thorson, Park Rapids Area DNR Wildlife supervisor, oversees 21 Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), totaling 11,331 acres. He and three staff members also coordinate wildlife work on 11 state forests.

Thorson gave a "broad overview of the more interesting things we do here in the Park Rapids office" at a Headwaters Center for Lifelong Learning presentation. He shared a slide presentation and answered audience questions Tuesday at Armory Square.

The Park Rapids office covers "a pretty broad geographic area with a lot of different issues and wildlife," Thorson said. The territory stretches across five counties and includes Itasca State Park, Chippewa National Forest and the Leech Lake and White Earth nations.

The main focus of their work is protecting, enhancing and managing habitat, he said.

This is accomplished through invasive species control, sustainable timber harvesting, brushing, water control structures and prescribed burns.

"A lot of habitats in this area are fire-dependent historically," Thorson noted.

Park Rapids staff annually mows 100 miles of walking trails for hunters. They also try to enhance hard and soft food production, like hazelnuts or berries.

Other duties include species management, disease monitoring, addressing nuisance wildlife and depredation, harvest regulations, banding waterfowl and migratory birds, interactive mapping of natural resources, and conducting surveys or research.

Thorson cited the trumpeter swan and wild turkey as two examples of conservation success stories in Minnesota. He described the swan population as "robust," noting that 200 were recently spotted in a Hubbard corn field.

Wild turkeys released in a WMA near Sebeka are doing quite well, Thorson said, adding that turkey hunting is increasingly popular and "a big draw."

Park Rapids wildlife staff collects population data and makes recommendations for nine deer hunting, two bear hunting and two wild turkey hunting permit areas.

"We're trying to work with a lot of deer management groups. We try to balance the needs and desires of everybody," he said. "Deer health is one of our primary concerns and Chronic Wasting Disease is at the top of that."

They also respond to wildlife nuisance calls, providing technical guidance over the phone or online. In more severe cases, they trap the animals. Foraging raccoons, black bear, deer and geese cause the most damage in the Park Rapids area.

Thorson urged people to watch wildlife, but not necessarily feed it to minimize some of the nuisance problems.

"Virtually all the work of the Park Rapids Area Wildlife staff is funded by money raised through hunting license sales. But reductions in buying power due to increasing costs for products, services and equipment have put this work and the recreational opportunities it creates at risk," according to a pamphlet provided by Thorson.

Thorson's staff has been reduced from four full-time and two seasonal workers to one full-time, one seasonal and one clerical staff member. Due to limited staffing and resources, the Park Rapids office operations and services must be curtailed.

In response, the Minnesota DNR is currently seeking a modest increase for some types of fishing and hunting licenses, Thorson explained.

Recreation worth paying for

If passed in the 2017 legislative session, the proposed fee adjustments would increase a resident deer license from $30 to $34. An additional $4 fee to apply for an antlerless permit in a lottery deer area is also recommended. A resident annual fishing license would rise from $22 to $25.

State income and sales taxes do not support the Division of Fish and Wildlife and its management efforts. Rather, the Game and Fish Fund and user fees are the primary means to support conservation work for fish, wildlife and law enforcement activities.

By law, Outdoor Heritage Fund and Minnesota State Lottery habitat dollars that the DNR receives cannot be used to pay for standard wildlife operation expenses.

The proposed fee increases will keep the Game and Fish Fund solvent until 2021, if enacted in 2017.

It's been five years since the last hunting and fishing license fee increase. Prior to 2012, it had been 10 years since the last general fee increase.