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MN House Agriculture Finance Committee jokes about non-lethal wildlife management, but serious about wolf/elk compensation

posted Feb 28, 2015, 10:30 AM by Scott Slocum   [ updated Mar 1, 2015, 11:28 AM ]
MN House Agriculture Finance Committee meeting, 2/26/2015. Full video recording.

The young people visiting for Future Farmers of America's "FFA Day at the Capitol" learned this week how the Minnesota House Agriculture Finance Committee manages its own "direct line" to the State's General Fund. 

Welcome, Future Farmers of America! Welcome to our Committee! Chairman Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) gestured with both hands raised. "Wonderful! Wonderful!" Honors were bestowed on retiring MN FFA Secretary Jim Ertl and on Food Farm owners and organic farmers Janaki Fisher-Meritt and Annie Dugan with their baby son Truman. No testimony was heard from organic farmers.

MN Rep. Rod Hamilton: Wonderful! Wonderful!
MN Rep. Rod Hamilton: Wonderful! Wonderful!

Three bills got their first hearings in the Committee's 2/26/2015 meeting. Without any voting necessary the three bills were "laid over for possible inclusion" in the committee's omnibus bill. What does that mean? Apparently that committee leadership will give them all the green light if possible. None of them will be subject to individual scrutiny or vote; voting will only be on the whole collection chosen by the committee leadership (Chairman, Vice Chairperson and Minority Lead). In other words, safe passage for these special bills.

The first bill was HF 888, titled "Mentoring and Farm Business Management Program challenge grant funding provided." It would provide an additional $2.4 million/year to the base funding of about $1 million/year for the program, which is operated by contract instructors on the campuses of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU). 

Committee Members and testifiers praised the higher-education bill for over an hour, interrupted by only one challenging question: why wasn't the bill going through normal channels (the MN House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee)? The answer: "because that would be harder." The Agriculture Finance Committee is a friendlier audience, with fewer competing priorities--and apparently its own direct line to the State's General Fund.

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The second and third bills (HF 348 and HF 514) had one task to accomplish: to translate one item from the Governor's budget into an appropriations bill. The two bills, introduced independently, overlapped on FY2016-2017 coverage. The latter was more comprehensive, additionally covering payments for elk damage and for FY2015 wolf depredation.

Even though the task might sound straightforward, it was a good thing the Chairman left a half-hour for comments on wolf policy, because many of the lobbyists and Members seemed to want their minute in the spotlight. Again, no comment on the issue from the organic agriculture community, which would be expected (if it were asked) to weigh in with solid support for non-lethal livestock-depredation control. As stated on the Food Farm website "The practice of organic agriculture nurtures the farm as a natural organism. The goal is to establish and maintain an optimal balance of animal, plant and human activity in a self-sustaining system.  Wholesome and delicious food is a product of these practices."

To be fair, these bills did concern wolf policy, so it was natural for people to want to talk about some of the related topics. Too bad they didn't want to talk about other ways (besides the formal topic of compensation payments or the informal topic of the limitations of non-lethal depredation control) they could make things better for Minnesota farmers. For example, funding to develop, publish, and support Best Management Practices (BMP) for livestock-depredation management, as directed in the MN Wolf Management Plan (and organic farming ethics).

There seemed to be a feeling in the room that all that could be done here was to fund the compensation payments; that most wolf-management policy is decided elsewhere--in the Environment & Natural Resources Committees and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR). The fact remains, however, that two important parts of wolf policy are the responsibility of agriculture (the MN Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the MN Legislature's Ag. Policy and Ag. Finance Committees): 

1) Compensation for livestock losses to wolf depredation. 
2) Best Management Practices (BMP) for livestock-depredation management. 
The complaint of Committee Members seemed to be that they could only carry out the first of these responsibilities; and that they considered the second a joke.

But in fact, rubber-stamping the funding of livestock compensation is not the only wolf-related responsibility of agriculture. According to the MN Wolf Management Plan, the responsibilities of agriculture include the BMPs for livestock-depredation management. Like it or not, those include non-lethal practices; not just the old-men's preference for extermination (i.e. opening a predator-control area to kill all of the wolves within a one-mile radius of the farm).

MN Rep. Dale Lueck
MN Rep. Dale Lueck: "I don't care if you put an elephant out there, [a large pack of wolves] will get him."

Unfortunately, rather than accepting agriculture's responsibility for livestock BMPs, in this hearing, the Committee chose to make fun of non-lethal control, focusing on one aspect of it (that was never meant to stand on its own) while ignoring or attempting to shift responsibility for the other aspects to the MN DNR (or the organic agriculture community, or the LCCMR, or somewhere populated by liberal wolf huggers--certainly not the Farm Business Management Program or the FFA, which were so well represented in the room on this great day). 

MN Rep. Jason Metsa (after telling his story about "one big SOB" wolf found dead on the highway).
MN Rep. Jason Metsa straightens his tie after telling his story about "one big SOB" of a wolf that was found dead on the highway (near a farm with a donkey). Good stand-up comedy!

The subject that was singled-out for ridicule was the use of livestock-guardian animals. Specifically, a few, poor animals that have been left out as examples, on their own, exposed to predators, without proper backup (according to proper livestock BMPs). Committee members were chuckling over their own single-word jokes using the words "llama" and "donkey" in amusing ways in otherwise straight-faced questions and statements. Thom Petersen of the MN Farmers Union, always ready with a good story, recounted the Carlton County extension agent's tale of the two llamas that were killed by wolves on two recent, consecutive nights recently. No one asked about the conditions of their deaths, or why the second llama was left out on the second night, obviously exposed to an overwhelming force, against which it was unable to defend it's farm's livestock, or even itself. Members also found Mr. Petersen's story about the proposal for a "Donkey Cost-Share Program" very amusing. No such proposal appears in the LCCMR catalog for 2014 or 2015. It might be a good one to look for in 2016--with a proper title and integration with livestock BMPs.

Thom Petersen, MN Farmers Union
Thom Petersen, MN Farmers Union: Have you ever noticed how any statement can be made into a joke by adding the word "Donkey" to it?

But let's get back to the topic of scientific livestock production for a moment (just for the purposes of this blog entry, mind you, not twisting any elbows in the Farm Business Management Program or the FFA). Livestock-guardian animals can be effective as one element in an integrated system of livestock BMPs. They can add an alarm and a first level of defense. They can't stand up alone against a pack of wolves, and they shouldn't be put in that position. They need a predator-deterrent fence in front of them, in an area that's kept clean of livestock carcasses, with a second line of defense behind them (e.g. a man with a rifle).

Thom Petersen, in-between his llama and donkey stories, referred Committee Members to "MN DNR help for fencing, and a good spot on their website about things to do." He was apparently referring to the MN DNR "Energized fences" web page about how to keep deer out of gardens, bears out of garbage bins, etc. There is no information on that web page about how to protect livestock from predators. No one challenged his poor reference to this MN DNR information, because everyone wanted to believe it, and nearly everyone would have been happy to "leave it to the DNR" (if that had ever been the DNR's responsibility, and if the DNR had ever done it).

Rep. Paul Anderson (R-Starbuck)
MN Rep. Paul Anderson: Have you ever noticed how any question can be made into a joke by adding the word "Llama" to it?

Then it came time for the public-relations campaign. Let's just title it here "No funding for trappers, no way to defend livestock." Thom Petersen (MN Farmers Union) and Doug Busselman (MN Farm Bureau) carried the campaign in concert. Absent were the USDA Wildlife Services and MN DNR spokesmen who had helped them kick it off on the previous weekend. The principal claim of the campaign is that there is "no funding" for the predator-control trappers that farmers have come to depend upon to remove depredating wolves. 

Doug Busselman, MN Farm Bureau
Doug Busselman, MN Farm Bureau: Woe and Pestilence, sayeth the Commissioner!

The fact is, though, that if there truly were "no funding," it would be a simple matter to restore it. The MN Predator Control Program has been funded in the MN State budget since 2012. It's still in the MN State budget, and the FY2015 funds have not been depleted. The Governor's budget includes continued funding for FY2016-2017. The only thing in the way of the funds is a technicality that could easily be resolved by a clarification in the wording or interpretation of State Statute (see the entry "Here's how to avert a "perfect storm" of funding deadlock for the MN Predator Control Program" in this blog for details on that need for clarification).

Rep. Dan Fabian ended the hearing everyone about his photos of his car thermometer (very cold), a herd of elk near Grygla, MN, and a calf killed by a wolf. He had pointed out throughout the hearing that "farmers don't want to be compensated;" that is, that they don't want to have anything to be compensated for; that they just want to work on raising their crops and their livestock. He illustrated producers' frustration with elk damage and wolf depredation with a story of his wife's feelings about her flower garden. He asked her if it would be okay for someone to come through and tear up her garden, as long as they paid for the damage afterward. "No that's not acceptable to her; she wants to raise her flowers because she likes her flowers." She doesn't want the damage in the first place. 

He was speaking for those who would like to go back to extermination, back to the good old days before the Endangered Species Act and all the talk we hear now about ecosystems, wildlife coexistence, "the farm as a natural organism," a "self-sustaining system," and the like. Back to that wonderful time before cattle were taken by wolves, before fences were broken down by elk, when men could just enjoy their soybeans and their livestock, and women didn't have to file for compensation for the destruction of their flower gardens. 

He was speaking so that the people of Minnesota, and the young people visiting on FFA Day at the Capitol, and on behalf of the Farm Business Management Program should never forget.

MN_House_2015-02-26_AgFinance_07

MN Rep. Dan Fabian "producers that I know, who live up in NW MN, don't want to be reimbursed; they don't want their cattle killed in the first place." Just like the wife's flower garden, these things should remain inviolate.