10 Questions with DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr

What more can be done to improve waterfowl numbers?

“The continental population right now is very good; we’re in pretty good shape, but the amount of precipitation that falls determines that. In Minnesota for breeding waterfowl, the most limiting factor is grasses and we don’t have much grass. If we really want to improve numbers we need to put more grass on the landscape in terms of CRP.”

How can the DNR deal with the future loss of habitat (expiring CRP contracts)?

“This really gets to the essence of the Prairie Plan. The trends we’ve been observing in the agricultural landscape have been coming at us for years. I think conservationists have known CRP is going to be around forever, but every other acre of grass out there is threatened. The impetus for the Prairie Plan is if we see this coming, what should we be doing now to get as much positives out of it as we can. We also have Legacy funding which gives us the ability in Minnesota to have enough resources to make a difference. The Prairie Plan says, ‘OK, if we start with a clean slate where would we put grass if we can use resources from the legacy amendment?’ We need to identify locations, identify amounts and identify expenses. It’s a very detailed plan about how to insure we have adequate grasses in the agricultural part of the state to sustain biological diversity.”

Has the Walk-In-Access program, which now includes a $3 fee to legally access land, lived up to expectations?

“We’re wildly satisfied considering where we started out, with a limited budget. We’ve gone from 10,000 acres to 20,000 acres, so it’s a very good program that’s in place. The areas are extensively used; the Walk-In Access lands seem to be getting used heavier than the WMA (Wildlife Management Area) acres, which is a little surprising. We’ve got 1.4 million WMA acres and 20,000 Walk-In acres – the owned land dwarfs the leased land.”

How is the 2013 waterfowl season shaping up?

“I think we’re looking pretty good. We’re starting again two weeks earlier than we were five years ago, which allows us to capture those local birds, like teal and wood ducks. Last year’s opener showed us that early start is beneficial; the timing of the opener allows us to take advantage of those birds we usually don’t get a shot at. If we can maintain some water in the sloughs through October, there should be a strong number of birds coming through from Canada and the Dakotas. Also, the three-zone split helps people take advantage of the chronology of migration and allows people to have a long season if they start north and ultimately move south.”

What have you learned from being commissioner since taking over two-and-a-half years ago?

“The main thing I’ve learned is how many big things there are and how everything is a big thing at any one point in time. There are so many things going on and it’s all top-of-the-fold, front-page news. It’s kind of like drinking from a fire hose kind of a thing. The good news is that Minnesotans care, the challenging news is that Minnesotans care. But the fact they care means everybody wants to have a say.”

How have you dealt with critics since becoming commissioner?

“I truly do try to listen to all perspectives, even though I know I don’t have the lock on all the right answers. Hearing different perspectives before making a decision is very important. You have to have a little bit of mental discipline to accept that rarely will everyone be happy. But they don’t have to make these decisions, I do. I have to be comfortable knowing I listened to people, weighed the evidence and made the right decision. Other than that you just have to have thick skin.”

Has the DNR’s shallow lakes plan done enough to attract more ducks to Minnesota?

“When I see a list of accomplishments of things actually getting done, I’m just floored and I have to give a tip of the hat to DU (Ducks Unlimited) which is at the forefront of helping us succeed. To really make an impact means we have to have the ability to control water levels on a great number of lakes. Since the Legacy Amendment came along, it’s given us the resources to really ramp up the number of lakes we can affect. Will it make a difference in duck migration? It’s much more complicated than having 200 great lakes in Minnesota, but lakes that do get management on them attract ducks like nobody’s business. Is it bringing in enough ducks to change migration? Probably not.”

You have said that Gov. Dayton wants the DNR to work for the people and be responsive to hunters. Describe the relationship between hunters/anglers and the DNR today.

“Generally, I think the relationship with hunters and anglers is pretty good. When you look at the scope of the DNR, there are seven divisions and each deal with different constituency. The way we interact with hunting stakeholders is somewhat a product of history; our section of wildlife creation was promoted by hunters for the purpose of conserving wildlife and maintaining habitat. When I sit here and look at what we’re doing, I think we’re providing a great service to hunters, I think of the diversity of hunting and the quality of hunting. In general, hunters have many quality experiences. I’m not hearing many big complaints; I hear little ones, like, ‘I didn’t see a duck all season’ or, ‘I haven’t seen a deer yet.'”

Do politics play too much of a role in decision-making within the DNR?

“I don’t think so in the terms of execution. We’re part of the executive branch so we execute. The politics come in at the legislative level at the Capitol. When they pass a law, they pass it to us to execute. I don’t believe, in terms of decision making, there isn’t a lot of what you would call politics. A lot of what we do is based on how we work with people; some may see that as politics. But at the end of the day, we work for the people of Minnesota.”

In 2011, the waterfowl opener was moved up and an increase in bag limits was implemented. What kind of impact did those moves have on hunter numbers?

“Up until 2011, we had seen four or five years of hunter numbers dropping; 2010 was one of the lowest on record, and there are any number of reasons for that. I think people perceived the populations weren’t good or their experiences weren’t good. We came out with big changes in 2011 and that year we saw an increase in hunter numbers. Last year we saw an increase in numbers. Changes in and of themselves don’t bring them in, but good openers do. It’s a product of these changes, yes, but it’s also a result of having better experiences that brought people back who may have dropped out.”