By Doug Leier

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.

Meadow Vole

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 meadow vole that has to live under a foot or more of snow?

(Actually, meadow voles probably survive quite well in winters with lots of snow. These mouse-sized mammals live in areas where vegetation grows long such as meadows, road ditches, and idle grasslands. In winter, they engineer intricate systems of tunnels in pockets between the snow and earth, and eat dead grass. The snow insulates their environment, and enhances protection from predators such as coyotes, fox and owls. In years with little snow, voles are likely more vulnerable to both cold temperatures and predation, but frankly, we don't worry about them during snow-free winters, either.)

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 voles. Many people do spend money on chickadees, nuthatches and other songbirds -species that are not hunted, fished or trapped - but it's not license money that goes back into helping maintain chickadee populations. 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 voles 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. 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.

Blue Bird Box Trail (example of watchable wildlife projects)

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.

Be on the lookout for the Watchable Wildlife signs in your area.

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. Other projects funded through the program include educational posters, pamphlets and presentations on watchable wildlife activities.

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.