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Farmers will keep an eye on wolf plans

Minnesota farmers and ranchers plan to watch closely how the Legislature, which opened Tuesday, and Department of Natural Resources implement control of the gray wolf, which the federal government delisted from the endangered species list last fall.

Wolf management is one of a handful of issues that include property tax and government reform that farmers and ranchers will push in the 2012 Legislature, Chris Radatz, director of public policy for the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation, told me.

The federal government delisted the wolf several years ago and the Minnesota Legislature approved a management plan that split the state into two zones and allowed a wolf hunt in areas of high wolf populations. A federal court, however, overturned the federal government decision to delist the wolf. Conditions were met, and the wolf was delisted last fall.

"One of the big issues we will be dealing with is the wolf issue," Radatz said. "At the federal level there have been so many challenges to it. Previously they (the DNR) had to wait five years before any kind of hunting or control season could be put in place. That permission was taken out last year, so we expect to be working with the DNR to see what can be put together to allow a hunting season possibly for wolves."

There were about 3,000 gray wolves in Minnesota in a census taken several years ago, a number which has grown since. It is possible to have a hunting season as soon as this fall.

"The population's up there in certain parts of the state," Radatz says. "It makes some sense. ... People need to understand that even if there is a season, those numbers are still going to be monitored ... and there's not going to be an effort to put them back on the endangered species list. The population will be monitored so there's a stable population to make sure they can survive yet control some of them that are obviously hurting various parts of the state with livestock kills."

Another problem, he said, is an inadequate compensation fund maintained by the Department of Agriculture to reimburse farmers and ranchers for livestock killed by wolves. "There's two issues with compensation," Radatz said. "The last I heard that fund may be running out of money, and the other problem is that now they are under state control, the federal trapping program is no longer funded."

Previously, farmers with problem wolves could request a federally licensed trapper to trap the wolves. The Minnesota Farm Bureau will work to keep that federal program, Radatz said.

The Minnesota Farm Bureau will also seek property reform, which Radatz said is needed after the Legislature last year eliminated the market value homestead credit. That action raised property taxes on agricultural lands.

"Farm property taxes is a big concern," he said. "Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to solve it. Most of us thought we'd be dealing with it in this legislative session, with a surplus ... but that money is already accounted for."

The Farm Bureau is encouraged by Republican plans to focus on overhauling state government.

"We don't see any big anti-agriculture initiatives by anyone," Radatz said. "We're always looking out for things like increased regulations, whether it's feedlots, pesticides, or any of those kinds of issues. I'm not aware of anything, but that's one thing we'll be looking for to make sure that doesn't happen.

Radatz said the Farm Bureau will ask legislators if "there's any regulations out there or extra bureaucratic red tape that farmers are facing. We'd try to address that with some legislation."

One area of study is duplication of government services, he said. "One of the concerns is why we have so many agencies focused on wetlands and water issues. It's always a struggle when we have to deal with multiple agencies."

The Republican-led Legislature has been kind to agriculture for the most part, Radatz said. "I think they did a pretty good job in trying to find out more about agriculture and looking at those kinds of issues. ... We've had a good reception from legislators on both sides of the aisle ... when it comes to agricultural issues."