LANSING (WWJ/AP) – Wildlife expert Russ Mason has 40 fewer biologists and other employees to oversee hundreds of thousands of acres of state land than the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had eight years ago, leaving him with a long “to-do” list of unfinished projects.
So when Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed a law that will let Mason turn to hunters, anglers and other outdoor lovers to mark game area boundaries, run deer check stations and restore wildlife habitat, the DNR’s Wildlife Division director was excited.
The agency, Mason said, has the chance re-establish a personal connection with the public while checking a few projects off the list.
“We need to do better on all of these lands … (so) people who live in this state have access to quality outdoor recreation,” he said. “Here’s a wonderful opportunity to literally work hand-in-glove with folks.”
Hunters such as Bob Borchak say they’re happy to get involved.
“This allows us as sportsmen to jump in where the budget doesn’t allow, and it’s all for mutual benefit – for the state, for us as hunters, for the environment, for the resources. That’s what we’re all about,” said Borchak, a regional vice president for the Michigan United Conservation Clubs who lives in Macomb County’s Macomb Township.
The retired Ford Motor Co. worker has thrown an early spring wild game barbecue at the Minden City State Game Area in Sanilac County for the past few years during which he and his friends clean up trash on acres of state land. Until now, the DNR has welcomed the help but not officially condoned it, since Borchak and his friends could be held liable for any injuries or damage.
Under the law Snyder signed Tuesday, volunteers will be protected from lawsuits resulting from work they do for the department. They’ll also be able to use DNR equipment and machinery at the department’s discretion.
The DNR could use the help. The agency’s current Wildlife Division budget of $30.6 million relies on federal funds for half its money and gets the rest from grants and a shrinking number of hunting licenses the state sells each year.
Staffing has dropped from 157 people in fiscal 2003 to 118 this year. Mason said his division would employ 215 people, near the number it had two decades ago, if it were fully staffed.
The Fisheries Division also has seen cutbacks, dropping to 245 people this year compared to 357 in fiscal 2003, according to DNR spokeswoman Mary Detloff.
The financial and personnel crunch has increasingly pushed the agency toward more partnerships with private groups. For instance, the DNR has joined with Pheasants Forever, MUCC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Michigan Department of Agriculture, local conservation districts and other organizations to help groups of property owners in three areas of the state to improve pheasant and small game habitat.
While the private citizens supply the labor, the DNR provides expertise, equipment, and seed and other materials for plantings. The agency also sometimes releases wild pheasants to help re-establish the game birds.
Mason said the Pheasant Restoration Initiative has been going well. During a project in June at Maple River State Game Area north of St. Johns, volunteers helped agency staff plant native prairie grass using DNR tractors and equipment.
Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Michigan Trout Unlimited, said his members have helped the DNR restore fish habitat for at least 50 years. He sees an even greater need for the new law as state funds for the DNR have decreased.
“In Michigan, we have a ton of water, we have a ton of lakes, we have a ton of miles of stream, so the agency really wasn’t super-able to keep up with inventorying them and really understanding them,” Burroughs said. “If we’re stuck in a time period where politically or economically we can’t give the agency enough to do the job well enough, nobody should be able to tell the citizens that you cannot help.”
Burroughs said the law will enable private groups to coordinate their efforts better with the DNR, noting his group has 7,000 members who want to do what they can to improve fish habitat and make fishing more popular.
Mason sees the new law as an opportunity to get more people outdoors enjoying forests, lakes and streams even if they don’t hunt, fish or hike. He hopes if more people volunteer, support for the state’s resources and the work the DNR does to preserve them will grow.
Borchak said he expects to see even more involvement by outdoors-lovers now that the law is in place.
“The good thing about the volunteer bill is it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities that volunteers can now engage in,” he said. “You’re going to see now so many more people step up to the plate.”
Mason has a lot of projects he’d like volunteers to do now that the law has expanded how volunteers can help. Here’s a few:
- Mark state game area boundaries using GPS coordinates
- Label the parking lots at state game areas with numbers
- Paint or repair buildings
- Staff deer and fish check stations
- Repair stream beds and banks to improve fish habitat
- Plant prairie grass and other plants to improve pheasant and small game habitat
- Get rid of invasive species such as purple loosestrife
- Pick up branches and other debris on trails
- Clean trash out of game areas and parking lots
- Keep an eye on state lands to discourage people from dumping unwanted refrigerators and other trash
To learn more about Michigan’s DNR, visit www.michigan.gov/dnr.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.