DNR staff: Agency leaders disregarding wildlife concerns in timber harvest plan

Staff say wildlife habitat damage, invasive species growth at risk

Loggers work on a site south of Bemidji.
Loggers work on a site south of Bemidji.
Tom Robertson | MPR News file

Wildlife managers from across Minnesota say Department of Natural Resources leadership is mismanaging the upcoming timber harvest in a way that risks altering state forest lands for the animals that depend on them and for people who recreate there.

DNR leaders stand by their work on the sustainable timber harvest analysis, which guides the next decade of logging on Minnesota state lands. But critics say the agency’s plan could damage certain habitats and worsen invasive species concerns, largely because of too much clear-cutting of forests.

The new plan calls for at least an 8.75 percent increase in amount of timber put for harvest. State wildlife area managers, who are tasked with protecting and enhancing habitats, say the DNR’s analysis leans too much on the land they oversee and doesn’t account for the best available science.

A group of 28 DNR wildlife managers, assistant wildlife managers and scientists outlined their concerns last month to Commissioner Sarah Strommen and Assistant Commissioner Bob Meier in a letter obtained by MPR News.

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The letter authors “do not believe it is scientifically honest or transparent to say that the 10-year timber plan is ‘beneficial to wildlife’” — especially on wildlife management areas, they write.

Some area wildlife managers worry species that depend on older forests are at greatest risk of losing their habitats.

“There are many wildlife species that depend on these forests — everything from deer and grouse to woodpeckers and owls,” said one area wildlife manager who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly on the analysis. “We’re concerned what impacts this increased harvest level is going to have on those species.”

DNR leadership denies the claims and stands behind its sustainable timber harvest analysis, or STHA.

“The STHA used the best data we have and explored many alternatives,” Strommen wrote in a response to the critics’ letter. “In fact, most of the staff and modeling effort focused on understanding issues around non-timber values.”

However, multiple area wildlife managers say their concerns were largely ignored and that agency leadership is bowing to the timber industry.

In addition, some staff believe the STHA could be in violation of state law requiring wildlife management areas to be managed in such a way that ensures “maximum production of a variety of wildlife species,” according to interviews and a DNR email obtained by MPR News.

The wildlife managers and scientists who spoke to MPR News did so on the condition they remain anonymous. DNR leadership instructed them not to speak to reporters on the matter and they feared reprimands for doing so.

Deputy DNR Commissioner Barb Naramore said in an interview that agency leaders stand by the STHA, and that it stays true to the intent of wildlife management areas.

“We recognize that every management action we take benefits some kinds of wildlife more than other kinds of wildlife,” Naramore said. “We are managing our wildlife management areas for an abundance of a variety of wildlife species.”

STHA guides a decade of forestry

The DNR last year set a target of offering 870,000 cords of timber for sale annually from DNR-managed forests.

At the same time, the agency also began a 5-year initiative to explore offering up to 30,000 more cords of ash and tamarack each year in response to threats from the invasive emerald ash borer and eastern larch beetle, which can kill the trees.

Former Gov. Mark Dayton in 2016 asked the DNR to study the sustainability of harvesting 1 million cords of timber each year from state lands. For the 15 years prior, the annual target was 800,000 cords.

Ultimately, the DNR, with help from third-party consultants Mason, Bruce and Girard, decided on an annual harvest of 870,000 cords after more than a year of study.

Their study aimed to balance several competing interests — from the timber industry to native plant communities’ well-being to habitat for wildlife — while ultimately deciding on a sustainable amount of trees to harvest.

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The wildlife managers’ letter said they’re committed to finding the target amount of timber under DNR’s plan, but disagree with the current way of doing so.

“It is our opinion that in order to partially mitigate the negative effects of annually harvesting 870,000 [and possibly more tamarack and ash] cords to a large number of wildlife species, there must be changes to how the STHA is being implemented,” the letter says.

Among several suggested changes to the analysis, the wildlife managers are asking for less of the harvest to come from the lands they manage. Currently, 12 percent of the harvest would come from wildlife lands.

They also want the Division of Fish and Wildlife to have more influence in where timber harvest would take place and what trees species should be harvested.

Wildlife managers’ concerns with the analysis vary — they say some locations have excessive tree stands to be harvested; in other areas, they say more harvest is necessary.

For example, the letter says the Whitewater wildlife management area in southeast Minnesota is slated to have about 75 percent of its oak trees up for potential harvest.

If that many trees are cut, the letter says, it “will put the entire [area] at risk for severe invasive species infestations.”

In Karlstad, the other corner of the state, wildlife managers say more harvest is needed to support species like the sharp-tailed grouse, which need open land and brushland habitats, the letter said.

DNR leadership says wildlife managers can reiterate their concerns during annual examination of stands put up for harvest. The next annual stand exam list is expected to become public in mid-fall, said Dave Olfelt, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director.

The wildlife managers say they understand the challenges of forestry management and maintaining a timber harvest, and that they’ll respect the DNR’s final decisions and work to implement them.

“However, we also feel that expression of our concern is not only our public trust responsibility,” the letter reads, “but also consistent with Department goals of supporting sound science, encouraging transparency and healthy discussion, and is consistent with a culture of respect.”

Staff letter outlining concerns

Commissioner’s response