In some parts of Minnesota, it’s no big deal to see trumpeter swans flying overhead, their black bills in stark contrast to their white bodies. It’s exciting to hear the trumpeting sound they make and exhilarating to feel as much as hear the thumping sound their wings make as they fly overhead. And while trumpeter swans are relatively common in Minnesota today, that wasn’t the case 40 years ago.
In the mid-1980s, after trumpeter swans had been declared extirpated from Minnesota, wildlife officials from the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) joined other groups concerned about the species and embarked on a project aimed at bringing the birds back to the state. They acquired trumpeter swan eggs from wildlife refuges in other states—Alaska, most notably—and then hatched the eggs and reared the birds before beginning to release them in 1987. The initial goal was modest: to create a breeding population of 15 birds. The goal later was revised to 500 individuals. Today, the state’s trumpeter swan population is booming, and the DNR’s most recent estimate pegs the number of swans that call Minnesota home at more than 17,000.
The comeback of trumpeter swans in Minnesota is without a doubt one of the state’s greatest conservation success stories, but also is a useful example of the array of funds that go into successful land and animal conservation. To fund the reintroduction, the DNR used donations from the Nongame Wildlife checkoff on state income tax forms, according to Carrol Henderson, DNR Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor. The checkoff allows citizens to make donations at tax time. But there would have been no restoration without good wetland habitat, which was in place in large part due to proceeds from the state and federal duck stamps required for all waterfowl hunters.
“That’s the kind of teamwork that conservation requires,” Henderson said. “The word habitat itself underscores all of our conservation efforts. There is no distinction in nature between game and nongame—they all require quality habitat.”
There are a variety of funding sources when it comes to conservation in Minnesota. The Nongame Wildlife Program, for example, relies on the Nongame Wildlife checkoff, funds from which are matched by dollars from sales of Critical Habitat license plates (the plates that have images including deer, flowers, moose or pheasants) and additional matching funds from the State Wildlife Grants program.
License sales revenues from fishermen and hunters go into the Game and Fish Fund, which, according to the DNR, is its “most important fund for delivering fish, wildlife and law enforcement programs. It is used, among other things, to manage 5,400 fishing lakes, 1,400 wildlife management areas and support 150-plus field conservation officers. Nearly $100 million flows in and out of this account each year. The revenue is primarily the product of hunting and fishing license sales, federal reimbursements, and a sales tax on state lottery tickets.”
In addition to buying licenses, hunters need special stamps when hunting for some species, including pheasants and waterfowl. Because stamp proceeds go directly to conserving grassland and wetland habitat in Minnesota, Henderson urges everyone to buy the stamps, even if they don’t plan to hunt or aren’t hunters.
“Don’t hesitate to go buy them,” he said. “These all contribute toward habitat for [a wide variety of species]. Whenever habitat is preserved, from whatever pool of dollars, it benefits literally hundreds of native species that we all enjoy throughout the year.”
Conservation of Minnesota’s game species and beyond
A number of wildlife conservation groups that focus on particular game species call Minnesota home. State organizations such as the Minnesota Waterfowl Association and Minnesota Deer Hunters Association work exclusively in Minnesota, while others such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever are national organizations with a strong Minnesota presence. (Pheasants Forever’s national headquarters is in St. Paul.)
While the organizations all have different focuses, all work to some extent on habitat conservation. Each raises money for that work in different ways, including banquets, but the 2008 passage of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which raised the state sales tax by three-eighths of one percent, has been a boon. A portion of that money—about $100 million per year—goes into the Outdoor Heritage Fund and, according to the state constitution, “may be spent only to restore, protect, and enhance wetlands, prairies, forest and habitat for fish, game, and wildlife.”
State agencies and conservation organizations propose projects for funding, and the citizen-legislator Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council then makes recommendations to the Legislature about how the money should be spent. While the completed projects help individual species such as deer, ducks, and pheasants—and the hunters who pursue them—the benefits are much more broad, according to Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
“You can look at almost any grant we write, and we list species (it will affect),” he said. “To find pheasants in there would be difficult. You could find them, but they’re buried in 50 other species and benefits in there. You can’t get a shovel dirty and think you’re just benefitting one species.”
And though about 96 percent of Pheasants Forever’s 150,000 members are hunters, Vincent says the group is about habitat, first and foremost. The group educates members about habitat management and pollinators, especially through its magazine, for example.
“We don’t raise and release birds,” he says. “We could have all the pheasants we wanted to hunt and shoot if that’s what this was about. And I promise you we would be five times as big as we are right now as an organization. But it’s not what it’s about. It is about that one acre. We call it stacking the benefits. You’re back to soil, water, wildlife, pollinators, monarchs, birders, mammals, neo-tropical birds. You can just go on and on.”
In addition to state and federal duck stamps, waterfowl hunters must also have a small-game license. Money from the small-game license and state stamp stays in Minnesota, while federal duck stamps dollars are distributed around the nation to create waterfowl habitat that benefits birds at the continental level. Hunters also contribute to conservation via an 11 percent excise tax on the firearms and ammunition they buy. Raised via the 1937 Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, that money—more than $400 million per year—is distributed back to state wildlife agencies for use in conservation efforts, hunter education programs, and shooting sports.
“Very, very clearly there is a strong tie between hunting and conservation,” said Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. “The more people who are out there enjoying the outdoors, the better off everybody is going to be in the long run.”
Hunters sometimes are guilty of putting their favored species over everything else, he acknowledged. But most also understand that the benefits of restoring wetlands, which the Minnesota Waterfowl Association is actively involved in, extend far beyond ducks. They’re home to trumpeter swans, for example, and their edges may provide winter cover for pheasants. Shorebirds pluck food from the dirt that surrounds them. Nylin likes to tell the story about the time he was out duck hunting on a marsh and watched as a white-tailed deer swam through his decoys.
“It’s thrilling to see all the other critters out there,” he said. “As an organization, any grant we participate in from a habitat standpoint, they have to be very broad in scope for different wildlife needs. It’s a much, much bigger picture than just being specific to one species.”
Of course, not all groups support hunting as a method for funding wildlife conservation. And a number of agencies that purchase land and conserve wildlife habitat receive few—if any—proceeds from hunting and fishing license sales. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), for example, brings in hundreds of millions of dollars per year from offshore oil and gas leases. The National Park Service is among the beneficiaries of the fund, according to its website, using LCWF proceeds to acquire lands, waters, and interests therein necessary to achieve the natural, cultural, wildlife, and recreation management objectives of the National Park Service.
Another, and perhaps one of the best known and most successful, conservation programs is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) administered by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency. CRP conserves and idles more than 20 million acres of environmentally sensitive land across the nation (about 1.2 million of those acres are in Minnesota). Congress makes general fund appropriations for that program.
Hunting isn’t the only tool for conserving wildlife habitat, but the question of whether or not hunting is a net benefit for conservation in Minnesota is hard to argue.
And while wildlife officials point to the benefits of participating in hunting and fishing—such as developing a greater appreciation for nature and the natural world—one of the reasons they are so concerned about declining numbers of hunters at the national level is because they contribute so heavily to conservation efforts of habitats for a wide variety of animals. That’s why groups such as Pheasants Forever and state agencies such as the Minnesota DNR spend so much time and energy working to recruit and retain hunters and fishermen.
“The people who care about conservation are the ones who spend the time in the field and see the impact from the loss of habitat, and see the benefit of the return of habitat,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said. “They become the most passionate conservationists, no doubt about it.”