Doug Leier: Watchable Wildlife Program Is For Animals You Don't Hunt


Pheasants, ducks, geese, deer and other game animals get much of the wildlife press in North Dakota, but if publicity was based on numbers alone, the state’s “other” wildlife would capture the headlines more frequently.

Biologists categorize more than 80 percent of North Dakota’s wildlife species as nongame, or those that are not hunted, fished or trapped. And yet, the few species for which hunting or fishing is allowed attract the lion’s share of concerns from people who enjoy the outdoors.

This winter provides a perfect example. While many of us wonder how the pheasants and deer fared, there were also many discussions on why so many snowy owls were being seen all across the Midwest. In short, the answer was an irruption caused by higher populations and reduced food availability in their typical range in Canada moved these owls naturally to search out food sources.

Pheasants capture our attention because tens of thousands of us hunt them in the fall. We spend money on licenses that goes directly toward maintaining the pheasant population and providing places to hunt.

We spend no money on snowy owls.

While owls and songbirds – and add reptiles, amphibians, shorebirds, raptors, other small mammals and many kinds of fish – do not generate any dedicated money that directly benefits their future, they are an important part of our outdoor world.

Which is why we all should be concerned with the status of all critters. When was the last time you went pheasant hunting and didn’t see any songbirds, or other animals using the same habitat? Pocket gophers, songbirds, frogs, snakes, pheasants, deer – they all might use the same habitat at one time or another. If the habitat is destroyed, it’s not just the marquee species that suffer.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is the responsible caretaker for most of the state’s animals. Game animals and game fish get most of the attention because almost all of the revenue to run the Department comes from hunter and angler license dollars and manufacturers excise taxes on firearms, ammunition, fishing tackle and other related equipment.

This is a good deal. Hunting and fishing are maintained by the people who participate, and a lot of the good things agencies do for game animals, like habitat conservation or creation, and protection against poachers, help many other species as well.

And now, Game and Fish has a new program that further links hunting and nongame or what we call “Watchable Wildlife.”

The state Watchable Wildlife program provides small grants to researchers to study wildlife and produces educational materials that help citizens better understand the role that all animals have in our great outdoors.

Over the past year or so, the Watchable Wildlife program is sort of partnering with the Game and Fish Private Land Open to Sportsmen program to provide more opportunities for wildlife viewing.

It works like this. Landowners who have unique or special habitats already enrolled in the PLOTS program can receive additional income through the Watchable Wildlife program for also providing walking access to wildlife watchers outside of established hunting seasons. These special areas are marked by brown and white rectangular signs depicting a pair of binoculars, in addition the familiar triangular yellow PLOTS signs.

The Watchable Wildlife program is funded primarily through a tax checkoff on the state income tax form. While most people have already filed taxes for this year, this new wildlife viewing program is a good example how the program can benefit all North Dakotans.