Hunting is an accepted and embraced heritage in North Dakota, and even those who don't hunt have a stake as they enjoy the matrix of critters that form the fabric of our outdoors wonderland.
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 are doing, how often do we give the same consideration to, say, the chickadee?
White-tailed deer capture our attention because tens of thousands of us hunt them every fall. We spend money on licenses that goes toward maintaining game animal populations and providing places to hunt.
While some people do spend money on chickadees, nuthatches and other songbirds -species that are not hunted, fished or trapped -it's not license money that goes back into helping maintain or improve chickadee habitat. It's money to buy feeders and seeds so we can attract these birds to our yards so we can delight in viewing them.
While 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. All these nongame species, as well as game animals, are part or a biological term called symbiosis; that is, living things depend on each other to function in natural harmony.
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 song birds, or other animals using the same habitat? Voles, 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.
In North Dakota, the State Game and Fish Department is the responsible caretaker for most animals. Game animals and game fish get most of the attention because almost all of the revenue to run the Game and Fish 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. But little money is available at the state level for funding management activities specifically designed to benefit nongame species.
That's where the state Watchable Wildlife Program, and corresponding Watchable Wildlife income tax checkoff come in. The Watchable Wildlife Program - formerly called the Nongame Wildlife Program - has been in operation since 1987. Through donations that come primarily from the tax checkoff, the Watchable Wildlife Program provides small grants to organizations and produces educational materials that help citizens better understand the role that all animals have in our great outdoors.
Tax checkoff dollars are also directly responsible for perhaps a few thousand bluebird nesting boxes built and placed by interested individuals over the past 17 years.
The Watchable Wildlife Fund does not generate a great deal of revenue, but it helps pay for projects that might not otherwise get funded through regular Game and Fish income that comes from hunters and anglers.
Fortunately, for most wildlife it works both ways. Many nongame species benefit from habitat improvements and management actions designed for game species. The neat thing about nature is that all these animals are in it together and that's part of the unique fabric of North Dakota.
Leier is a biologist for the Game and Fish Dept. He can be reached via