Legislature passes jumbo outdoors bill with ‘transformational’ money

If you care about fishing, final legislation heading to the desk of Gov. Tim Walz might be considered a record catch.

Bundled in a stringer full of policy changes and millions of new dollars benefitting outdoor recreation, a multifaceted bill approved by the House and Senate broke a yearslong stalemate at the Capitol on issues important to hunters and anglers.

"As we build these things out, it's going to be transformational," said Bob Meier, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) assistant commissioner.

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen called it a "truly historic investment in natural resources and outdoor recreation." She said Minnesotans who visit lakes, wildlife management areas, state parks, state forests, trails and other public lands will see improvements over the next couple of years. High on the list of priorities is DNR's fish-stocking program.

"These investments will transform our work," Strommen said.

The finalized environment and natural resources bill will send $308 million in new operating money to the DNR, spread over the next two fiscal years. In addition, the agency will receive more than $116.6 million in direct cash from a $1.3 billion capital investment plan sourced from the state's $17.5 billion budget surplus.

On the policy side, the bill declares a moratorium on new deer farms, allows for crossbow use regardless of a hunter's age, allows for some two-line fishing, gives the DNR new authority to allow emergency importation of minnows from neighboring states, and makes way for a new work group to study the feasibility of a river barrier to block invasive carp.

Elements of the bill:

If you fish

• Fee increases for fishing licenses, originally sought by the DNR, will not happen.

• The Waterville fish hatchery will be rebuilt for $18 million to $20 million.

• Other hatcheries will be updated with $35 million in new operating money also covering expansion of fishing piers and other shore-fishing facilities.

• Another $35 million is earmarked for new gravel, docks, bathroom facilities and other improvements to boat access infrastructure on lakes and rivers.

• About $10 million in new money will go for fish-passage improvements along cold-water trout streams on the North Shore as well as other stream restoration projects in the state. The same money will cover advances in water control structures on shallow lakes.

• The new operating funds will bolster staffing at the DNR to conduct more fish population surveys and other research needed to maximize fish stocking.

• To manage invasive carp, $1.72 million goes to a new work group, including experts at the University of Minnesota to study and provide preliminary design for a lock and dam barrier on the Mississippi River.

• During ice fishing, anglers will be able to use two lines. Two lines also may be used in the Minnesota River downstream from the Granite Falls Dam and in the Mississippi downstream of St. Anthony Falls. By rule, the DNR may allow two-line fishing on areas of Lake Superior.

• Ice-fishing litterbugs will be subject to a $100 fine for each violation of a new law aimed to prevent garbage, excrement and other waste from hitting the ice. The law requires a waste container to be secured to the angler's shelter, motor vehicle or other fishing "conveyance."

• More resources will be poured into the DNR's study of native rough fish. A stakeholder group will come back with recommendations on how to protect certain species.

• By 2026, the DNR will be required to offer anglers the choice of an app to contain their fishing license.

• White bass and crappies will be stocked in Lake Phalen and other east metro lakes under a special $75,000 program. Additional enhancements will be made for fishing outreach purposes to the DNR's Fishing in the Neighborhood Program.

• To ensure an adequate supply of live bait during a minnow shortage, the DNR may allow importation of minnows but only from waters in neighboring states. Also, the DNR must consult with bait dealers and fishing groups to recommend by early next year how to "ensure a viable Minnesota-grown bait supply and sustainable bait industry" that minimizes the risk of spreading aquatic invasive species or fish disease.

If you hunt

• The DNR was given new tools to fight the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD) in wild deer. Chief among them is a moratorium against the establishment of new deer farms. The bill also takes away oversight of the industry from the Board of Animal Health and gives it to the DNR. It will improve fencing of captive deer where needed and restrict the importation of captive deer from areas where CWD is a problem.

• On wildlife management areas and aquatic management areas, $10 million in new money will go to wetland and grassland habitat improvement projects.

• No more age limits on crossbow usage. Licensed hunters of any age will be allowed to take deer, bear, turkey or rough fish by crossbow during the regular archery seasons.

• The bill denies an attempt to outlaw sport hunting of wolves. If federal protections on Minnesota wolves are lifted, the DNR would be able to authorize a hunt based on its own wolf management plan.

• A hunter in a synthetic ground blind on public land must place a blaze orange safety covering on top of the blind visible for 360 degrees. There must be at least 144 square inches of blaze-orange material on each side of the blind.

• From Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, deer hunters may leave a portable stand overnight on public hunting land in an area of northern Minnesota. The stands must display proper ownership identification.

• Access to public hunting lands will be improved, including allowances for people with disabilities who use motorized mobility devices. In addition, wildlife photographers, foragers, bird watchers and other nonhunters will have explicit permission to roam hunting lands in the DNR's walk-in access program as long as they pay the $3 validation fee.

If you visit state parks

• Showers, bathrooms, camping areas and boat ramps will be upgraded in many places, while more parks will extend operations past Labor Day. Access will be improved for people with disabilities, including a project at William O'Brien State Park in Marine on St. Croix.

• The DNR will not raise state park admittance fees. Lawmakers declined that request.

If you care about moose and elk

• Aerial surveys flown by DNR crews each January will be greatly modernized under a $3 million equipment upgrade to agency airplanes. The winter population surveys, now conducted visually without electronic aids, are central to DNR's management of the two species.

If you operate a snowmobile

• The DNR will introduce a larger-format registration decal that will spare snowmobilers from separately displaying registration numbers on their sleds.