by Doug Leier

When you stop and focus as you are driving or walking across North Dakota, you'll realize the majority of wild animals don't fall into the "game" or "hunted" category. 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.

While many of us wonder how the pheasants and deer are doing, how often do we give the same consideration to chickadees or nuthatches?

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.

150211 watchable wildlifeMany people do spend money on feeding songbirds like chickadees and nuthatches, but it's not license money that goes back into helping maintain chickadee populations.

In North Dakota, nongame wildlife do not generate any dedicated money that directly benefits their future, and yet they are an important part of our outdoor world. When was the last time you went pheasant hunting and didn't see any songbirds, or other animals using the same habitat?

Game animals and game fish get most of the attention because almost all of the revenue to run the state 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 creation or conservation, and protection against poachers, help many other species as well. Voles, pocket gophers, songbirds, frogs, snakes, pheasants, deer - they all might use the same habitat at one time or another.

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 tax checkoff was passed by the state legislature 28 years ago, and provides a means for citizens to voluntarily contribute a portion of their state tax refund to programs or projects that help all wildlife.

A couple of examples include:

Grand Forks County Prairie Project

Watchable Wildlife funds were used to complement other funds for wetlands and grassland protection in the Grand Forks County Saline Prairie. This rare tallgrass prairie habitat is vital for waterfowl, grassland songbirds, shorebirds, hawks, upland game birds, reptiles and amphibians, white-tailed deer, red fox, muskrats and many other species.

Sioux County Research

For many years, researchers monitored the breeding population of loggerhead shrikes in northeastern Sioux County. The loggerhead shrike is a small gray, black and white bird found in open grassland with scattered trees or bushes.

Although not considered a hawk, this bird is a predator that catches insects, birds, mice, and other animals, and then stashes them on thorns or barbed wire for later consumption. Watchable Wildlife funds were provided for banding efforts that were part of the study of this unique nongame bird.

While many nongame species also benefit from habitat improvements and management actions designed for game species, the Watchable Wildlife checkoff ensures there is at least a modest amount of funding available for special projects that can help wildlife, or help people to better understand and enjoy our wildlife resources.