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Inside the Outdoors: Teal hunt - wild rice conflict should be no surprise

Inside the Outdoors

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The big news on the eve of Minnesota’s experimental teal hunting season that began Saturday was that some of the state’s prime duck hunting waters would be off-limits to hunters. Off-limits, because they are traditional wild rice waters, the ricing season is open and the identified waters lie within Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe reservation boundaries.

Just days before the special 5-day teal-only hunt was to begin on Sept.4, leaders of both Ojibwe bands revealed their intent to prohibit not only teal but also open water goose hunting, the state’s early season for which began on the same date. The Leech Lake and White Earth leaders cited concern for the safety of wild rice harvesters. The wild ricing season this year runs from Aug. 15 through Sept. 30. Waters included in the off-limits-to-hunting declaration were numerous, and among them some of the most high profile and popular for duck hunters, including some or all of Leech, Cass, Winnibigoshish, Bowstring and Upper Rice lakes. Included, too, were parts of the Mississippi River.

Both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources—which proposed, lobbied for and backed the early teal hunting season—and the Ojibwe bands believe their side holds the legal high ground. For example, a 1969 agreement grants non-tribal members hunting and fishing rights on public waters within Leech Lake reservation boundaries, in exchange for the band receiving a share of state hunting and fishing license revenues. This reportedly amounted to more than $3 million in 2020. On the other hand, a 1973 agreement grants Leech Lake tribal government the right to manage wild rice waters within its reservation boundaries.

The DNR acknowledged that when it floated the idea of a September teal hunt and sought stakeholder opinions, concern over possible conflict with the ricing season was voiced by Ojibwe tribal leaders. But the DNR apparently did not interpret that concern as rising to the level of possibly interfering with the hunt. For the record, the Ojibwe bands have not similarly opposed September over-water goose hunting on wild rice waters in the past. But the state has far fewer goose hunters than duck hunters, so the potential for conflict then was more limited.

DNR leadership conceded before the Sept. 4 start of the five-day teal hunt that there was not time to resolve the disagreement before the season, having only learned of the Ojibwe bands’ intended closure declaration less than a week before the season was to begin. Legal action following the season is a real possibility. It will be important to address who really has the authority to regulate hunting by non-Native American band members on public waters within reservation boundaries.

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Something that should not be lost in the teal season’s post mortem, however, is the wisdom—or possibly a shortage of it—of holding an early September teal hunting season with this timing in the first place. The DNR’s core argument was that other states in our Mississippi Flyway hold early teal hunting seasons before the regular duck season, and the early migration departure of many teal can mean a loss of hunting opportunity for Minnesota hunters.

But those states to the south of us along the Mississippi Flyway do not have Minnesota’s wild rice resource and harvest, and indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage is intimately connected to “manoomin,” as it’s known by many Native Americans. Thus there is not the potential in those states for hunting vs wild rice harvest conflict. Wisconsin and Michigan do grow and harvest wild rice on some lakes and river flowages, but not to the extent that Minnesota does.

There might not be this potential for conflict if the DNR had not previously made other decisions relative to the state’s waterfowl hunting. First was to push the general waterfowl season opener roughly a week into September, from its traditional October opening. Then to add a youth waterfowl hunt—which many justifiably support—two weeks before the general waterfowl hunting opener. Wanting to separate an early teal season from the youth hunt event, the DNR thus opted for the first week of September.

It’s hard to imagine two activities that are more opposite in their practices, and present greater potential for conflict, than wild rice harvest and waterfowl hunting. Rice harvesting is done by poling or paddling a canoe through a stand of wild rice, with a “beater” in the front seat bending the stalks over the canoe and beating the stem with a stick to break the mature rice kernels free, which fall into the canoe.

Waterfowl hunters typically conceal themselves along shorelines in standing vegetation, augmented by camouflage of one kind or another that may range from netting, to camo pattern fabric, to synthetic or real aquatic vegetation attached to a fixed blind or a boat. Hunters limit their movement and noise as much as possible to avoid scaring ducks that might be approaching their spread of decoys.

Apart from the fact that these two activities require opposite behaviors, in places where ricing and hunting overlap there is also the potential danger of ricers being accidentally shot, as well as interpersonal conflict between hunters hoping to harvest ducks, and ricers who might spoil their opportunities.

The Minnesota DNR was warned of this potential for conflict by some of its own wildlife section staff well before the decision to hold a special teal season was made. I happen to know one such “wildlifer,” who also is an experienced and long-time ricer, as well as an avid waterfowl hunter. He and others have watched the Minnesota DNR gradually but steadily make management decisions intended to increase the harvest of ducks and geese, with the goals of retaining existing and attracting new hunters to the pursuit of waterfowl, and—not coincidentally—contributing much-needed license revenue to support DNR activities.

Ironically, many long-time, hard-core waterfowl hunting enthusiasts oppose recent liberalized bag limits, expansion of shooting hours and some other proposals—not yet adopted, fortunately—that would reduce some open water safe havens for resting waterfowl, and reduce the need for hunters to have duck identification skills and practice selective harvest by sex and species. Similarly, to many hunters an early teal season seems like one more possible misstep in the state’s waterfowl management. Especially in a severe drought year when young duck production is expected to be very poor.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

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