Q & A with new deputy N.D. Game and Fish Department director Duane DeKreyFormer legislator Duane DeKrey comes to his new position as No. 2 person in the N.D. Game and Fish Department with a voting record that didn’t always mesh with conservation. But DeKrey says his ag background will help the department work with private landowners
By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald
Duane DeKrey is the new deputy director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, having been appointed to the position in late December by Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand. He replaces Roger Rostvet, who retired from the department’s second-in-command position last July.
A Pettibone, N.D., native and former farmer and rancher, DeKrey, 56, spent 20 years in the North Dakota Legislature, where he represented one of the most rural districts in the state. DeKrey was known for voting against bills promoting conservation easements and public land, and his appointment has drawn criticism by some people in the state’s sportsmen’s community.
Less than two weeks into his new job, DeKrey sat down for a phone interview with Herald outdoors writer Brad Dokken to discuss his views on the position, the criticism he’s received and how he plans to bridge the gap with skeptics. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
Q. How did your interest in this position come about?
A. Well, actually, it wasn’t even on my radar until Terry called me, and the first thing I did was I asked Terry, “Do you want to talk to me because you’re interested in me or do you want to talk to me because somebody up above wants you to?” And he said no, he said that he had thought of me, and he wanted to talk to me about it, and so we had several conversations over about a month period.
Q. As a person with an agricultural background and a legislator, what do you bring to the Game and Fish Department?
A. The last 10-15 years here in North Dakota have kind of been the golden years as far as hunting and fishing go. You look at that and you wonder, “How long can we sustain this?” Well, the answer is not very long because we’re going to go from about 3.2 million acres of (Conservation Reserve Program land) in 2006 to about 600,000 acres projected in 2017. That’s about an 80 percent loss of our CRP acres and that, of course, has been wonderful habitat for upland and for nesting ducks and for deer, and that’s why things have been so good. And so, you take a look at that and you say, “How are we going to replace that?” Obviously, we’ve got to go to landowners because most of what we do in North Dakota as sportsmen takes place on private land. We’re going to have to work with landowners to try to maintain what we’re used to, and with my ag background, I’m plugged into the ag groups, and they trust me and they know me. That will give the department someone they can send to those organizations that perhaps won’t be looked at sideways immediately.
A. I see my role as working for Terry Steinwand. Whatever Terry Steinwand wants me to work on, that’s what I’m going to work on. I’m not a biologist and so the science part and the biology part and the studies and the actual game management, we’re going to leave that to the professionals. I certainly didn’t walk in here and think that after 30 years on the farm I was all of a sudden going to be a game biologist. It just doesn’t work that way.
Q. Some sportsmen’s groups are calling for an increase in hunting and fishing license fees to shore up funding for the Game and Fish Department and add staff. Where does the department stand on that proposal?
A. There’s a bill that was filed to raise licensing fees for hunting, and we hear there’s an amendment raising fishing and boating registration coming, too, that will be amended onto that bill. The department will be supporting that.
The governor’s budget didn’t have any increase of fees or FTEs (full-time equivalents) for us, and we would at a minimum like to get one more game warden, but we don’t know whether that’s in any of these bills that have come in or if that’s a possibility or not. There are just a lot of ideas floating around right now.
Q. Where do you think the greatest need for additional staff exists?
A. It’s western North Dakota, but we’re just like everybody else — we don’t have any place for people to live out there.
Q. The governor has proposed a $10 million Heritage Fund. How and where do you think that money should be spent if it ultimately becomes available?
A. Well, one of the things we know for sure we’re going to do with it is plus up the PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) program because at the peak of the PLOTS program, we were at a million or a little over a million acres, and of course with commodity prices and the federal government making it more difficult to sign up or re-enroll land in CRP, we’re down to 820,000 acres or right around there somewhere. And so, we would like to actually get over that million-acre figure with the PLOTS program.
That $10 million is not a straight pass through to the Game and Fish Department; there are a lot of other agencies or activities that are going to be applying for grants from that $10 million.
Q. Looking back on your years as a legislator, there were votes on bills — opposing conservation easements and things like that — that didn’t necessarily jibe with sportsmen and conservation groups around the state. Now that you’re a member of the Game and Fish Department, what do you say to people you might have disagreed with over those kinds of issues?
A. Well, what I say is I always represented one of the two or three most rural districts in this state. And when I was elected to the Legislature, I represented my district, and when I knew where the majority of my people were, that’s what I did. As Todd Porter (R-Mandan, chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee) said to me, “If you had voted for some of that stuff, you would have been the former Rep. Duane DeKrey a long time ago.”
I’d also like to make the point that if you’re a special interest group of any kind, you can cherry pick any legislator’s voting record and make them look bad or good. I think when it came to issues other than land use and land issues — where my constituents were absolutely rock-solid against them — I think I actually was pretty fair to Game and Fish and supported them quite well. But the hot button issues, perhaps, being from a rural district, didn’t sell real well in the sportsmen’s community.
Q. Does your voting record make it more difficult to bridge some of those gaps?
A. Terry and I talked about this quite a bit, and we knew that there was going to be some blowback. I don’t think we anticipated that some of it was going to be as vehement as it turned out to be. But then I’ve had other people come up to me and email me and say, “Great appointment, it’s about time we had somebody in that office.” So, it works both ways. But I think there are some fences to be mended, yeah. I think that I’m certainly going to have to prove myself to the community. … Give me a chance, anyway.
Q. A reader who emailed me critical of your appointment said it’s all but over for wildlife, especially in western North Dakota. Would you espouse to that view or are you more of a glass-half-full kind of guy?
A. I certainly don’t think that oil production has been good for wildlife. I don’t think it’s been as bad as some people think it has been because when I was driving around out there, unless you live in a rural area, you really don’t understand the expanse.
We’ve got the Industrial Commission, which of course is headed up by the governor, and he’s directed the state Land Department to work with us on prime habitat. I think everybody has got the same goal. It’s just a matter of sitting down together and working it out issue by issue as it comes up. The Game and Fish Department has absolutely no statutory authority whatsoever to do anything out in western North Dakota. If we’re going to work with an oil company or the state Land Department, it’s all going to have to be on a level of volunteerism from the other agency’s part or the company’s part. I think they’ve got plenty of reasons why they want to do that.
I think that everybody’s in the right frame of mind to do something, I’m just hoping that it continues that way.
Q. Any parting thoughts?
A. I know one of the dings (against me) was I didn’t have a conservation ethic. And I thought to myself, “Well gee whiz, 15 years ago I stuck all my tillable acres into CRP and then when it came out 10 years later, I re-enrolled it, and I kind of thought that was conservation.” And then I took 10 acres of my CRP and lost pay on it and put trees on it because I wanted some trees, and so when it comes to raising game for the general public and conserving land, I really don’t think there’s anybody who’s got a better record than me. And so where they came up with this, “I don’t have a conservation ethic,” I don’t know.
Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.