Minnesota state parks will be in business without interruption the rest of the year, thanks to a deal struck in recent days between Republicans and DFLers.
But domestic deer farms also will still be in business, continuing the chronic wasting disease (CWD) threat they pose not only to the state's 1 million wild whitetails, but to a Minnesota hunting tradition that dates to statehood.
The two outcomes perhaps represent the high- and low-water marks for the "outdoors" in a legislative session expected to end early next week.
Republicans had warned for months they would withhold natural resources and environment funding, including money for state parks, if Gov. Tim Walz and the DFL didn't postpone their push for so-called Clean Cars emissions standards.
That logjam was worked out.
But an effort by DFLers to declare a moratorium on new deer farms in Minnesota while the state Board of Animal Health (BAH) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) develop a new comanagement plan for deer-farm oversight died in the Republican-controlled Senate Tuesday night on a 35-29 vote.
Some agriculture lobbyists have said privately their support for Minnesota's estimated $20 million (annual) deer farm industry is tepid. But that industry nevertheless pressured legislators this session to keep deer farms in business, said Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chairman of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee.
"There was an undertone of pressure from the ag industry," Ingebrigtsen said. "They didn't want authority over deer farms going to the DNR and they felt the Board of Animal Health was spending too much time with deer farms."
Failure to at least declare a moratorium on new state deer farms disappointed Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul and chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance and Policy Committee.
"It just seems that every time a debate arises between agriculture and conservation in the Legislature, agriculture wins,'' Hansen said.
The long-running goal of conservationists to transfer oversight of deer farms to the DNR from the BAH did gain traction this session, however, when the Legislature approved a new comanagement plan for the two agencies.
Regulatory authority historically has rested with the BAH, which some observers have criticized for lax oversight and being too cozy with the industry. Largely confined 20 years ago to southeast Minnesota, CWD and the threat it poses to wild deer now exists in central Minnesota and has surfaced in a bizarre case in Beltrami County, near Bemidji, where operators of a now-defunct deer farm dumped CWD-infected deer carcasses on public land, possibly spreading the disease to wild deer.
Details remain to be worked out in a memorandum of agreement between the DNR and the BAH over which agency will do what in deer farm oversight. But essentially, said DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen, "All of the authorities over deer farms the Board of Animal Health has, the DNR now has, too.''
Whatever agreement is ultimately reached between the DNR and the board, Strommen said she wants DNR staff to be responsible for deer farm inspections, including fence inspections.
"Under current law,'' Strommen said, "if a deer farmer says they don't want the DNR present when the board is examining a deer operation, we can't be there.''
Ingebrigtsen and Hansen are both hunters. But their opinions diverge over whether the Legislature did enough this session to beef up deer farm administration.
"There was some talk in the session about buying out deer farmers, but I thought it was a little early for that, though that might be something that will come forward down the line,'' Ingebrigtsen said. "For now, we'll see how the comanagement works, and the DNR and the Board of Animal Health will have a report for us before the next session about any further recommendations they might have.''
Countered Hansen: "I'm skeptical of the comanagement agreement. We have 450,000 deer hunters in the state. It's part of who we are. To put that at risk is madness.''
Until now, hunters and anglers have largely funded the DNR's CWD containment efforts through license fees. During the next two years, state taxpayers will pick up a greater share of the tab, thanks to $7 million appropriated by the Legislature this session from the general fund.
In other action and non-action this session:
• Lawmakers again failed to OK higher watercraft registration fees, which haven't been increased since 2006. The state's population continues to grow, the agency argued, and its boat-launching and other access areas need updating.
• Funding recommendations made by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to improve fish, game and wildlife habitat were approved with few changes by legislators.
• Similarly, appropriation proposals developed by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR) for consideration by last year's Legislature were approved largely intact, as were the LCCMR's current recommendations.
• Many policy proposals were left hanging. The state's walleye limit will remain six, not four as proposed. The rifle zone for deer hunting remains unchanged. A proposal to establish a wolf-hunting season went nowhere, as did multiyear efforts to require nontoxic shot on farmland-region state wildlife management areas.