In my lifetime, I have spent a few thousand dollars on fishing and hunting licenses and trout, pheasant and duck stamps, as well as plenty of money in excise taxes on guns and shells — money that is used to help manage and increase deer, turkey, ducks, pheasants and grouse.
I knew that.
But what I didn't realize is that I've also helped the recovery of trumpeter swans, rusty patch bumblebees, Poweshiek skipperling and Dakota skippers, red-shouldered hawk, timber rattlesnakes and hundreds of other endangered species.
The idea that we hunters have spent billions of dollars helping endangered species never occurred to me. But a few months ago I was contacted by the Southeastern Minnesota Visual Artists, who have a building on South Broadway in Rochester, to speak about how hunters help endangered species. It will be part of the display of works by seven artists highlighting endangered species of Minnesota.
At first, I was befuddled. Then I began to think about it.
Of course hunters help.
Where our money goes
The most important thing our game species need is habitat, habitat, habitat. What do swans, skipperlings, rattlers and bumblebees need? Habitat, habitat, habitat. Habitat for game species is also habitat for non-game species.
We hunters provide money that buys and protects millions of acres of habitat through state or federal programs or through groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited. We hunters and anglers also were a driving force in helping to pass the Legacy Amendment, which has pumped many more millions into habitat.
The king of such hunter-financed habitats around here is the Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, more 28,000 acres of forest, prairie, wetlands and streams that extends from around Elba north to Weaver.
Buying land for the WMA began in the 1940s and used money from the Pittman-Robertson Act that gets money from the excise tax on shotguns, shells and other hunting gear. Since it began about 82 years ago, it has collected more than $7 billion. (The one for fishing gear has collected more than $9 billion.)
Jaime Edwards, manager of the Whitewater, wasn’t at all surprised when I asked her about how hunters help non-game species. She is the former regional head of the Department of Natural Resources Non-game Program and has seen how both game and non-game species benefit
"Pretty much the history of funding for wildlife management has been on the back of hunters," she said. "If we didn’t have the hunters and anglers, our endangered species might be in a lot worst condition."
"I didn’t think they (hunters) are aware of the money that goes to other species," said Christine Priest Johnson, assistant WMA manager. "It makes a lot of sense when you think about it."
Those mutual benefits are not accidental, these managers said. When they look at a project, its impact on non-game and endangered species is taken into account.
Sometimes, however, just having the habitat available helps an endangered species.
Swans make a comeback
One that is getting a lot of attention from birders and photographers along Minnesota 74 that goes through the Whitewater WMA is the trumpeter swan. Its numbers once were around 100 in the Lower 48 states, but a major conservation effort has brought them back. They just love those flooded pools in the Whitewater Valley. No one really thought about swans when the pools were flooded decades ago — the swans just naturally used them.
Don’t forget Ducks Unlimited helped pay for upgrading dikes that control the Dorer Pool complex on the refuge, she said.
The Ruffed Grouse Society is working in the Upper Midwest blufflands, including in Minnesota, to bring back younger forests that are better for grouse, she said. But the young forests also help a lot of birds, some of them endangered, such as warblers.
Johnson added that the DNR has added more than 3,000 acres of wildlife land in the southeast, and that was paid with Legacy money that hunters helped by pushing for passage of the sales tax increase.
In the more prairie parts of the state, duck stamp money (most hunters need to have state and federal duck stamps) helps pay for hundreds of federal Waterfowl Production Areas that, of course, are meant for ducks but also help endangered butterflies such as the Poweskiek skipperling and Dakota skipper, said Todd Luke, project leader for the Windom Wetland Management District of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"These species depend on healthy, native prairie wetland landscapes," he said. He was referring to the endangered species but could also have been talking about mallards and teal. He has never had a conflict between hunted and non-hunted species, he said.
“Managing for the endangered species and the ducks is very compatible, complementary,” he said.