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Duck hunting is expected to be good when Minnesota’s regular waterfowl season opens a half-hour before sunrise on Saturday, Sept. 24.
“The abundance of breeding ducks in Minnesota and North America has been good in recent years, so we hope that results in good opportunities for duck hunters this fall,” said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Wetland habitat conditions are fairly good across the state and with a little help from Mother Nature with some favorable fall weather, it could be a good season.”
Duck seasons and limits
The duck season structure is similar to recent years. The waterfowl seasons are based on a federal framework that applies to all states in the Mississippi Flyway. Waterfowl hunting regulations are available wherever DNR licenses are sold and online at www.mndnr.gov/regulations/hunting.
Duck season will be open for 60 days in each of the three waterfowl zones:
The daily duck bag limit remains six per day. The mallard bag limit remains four per day, including two hen mallards. The daily bag limits remain at three for wood duck and scaup; and two for pintails, redheads and canvasbacks.
The DNR will post a weekly waterfowl migration report each week during the duck season. The reports are typically posted on Thursdays at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
Goose and sandhill crane seasons
Minnesota’s goose season will re-open in conjunction with the duck season statewide on Sept. 24, with a bag limit of three dark geese per day the entire season. “Dark” geese include Canada geese, white-fronted geese and brant. Goose season will be closed in the central and south duck zones when duck season is closed.
The season for sandhill cranes remains open through Sunday, Oct. 16, in the northwest goose and sandhill crane zone only. The daily bag limit will be one sandhill crane per day. A $3 sandhill crane permit is required in addition to a small game hunting license.
More information on duck, goose, sandhill crane and other migratory bird hunting is available in the 2016 Minnesota Waterfowl Hunting Regulations booklet from license vendors and online at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
Another mild winter, good nesting season conditions and a slight increase in grassland habitat in the pheasant range all combined to increase Minnesota’s roadside pheasant index by 29 percent compared to last year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
“Grassland habitat is critically important to pheasant populations,” said Nicole Davros, a DNR research scientist who oversees the August roadside survey. “Over the past two years we have had weather that benefited pheasant numbers, but in the long term we’re still looking at a downward trend in habitat and that drives the population trends.”
The 2016 pheasant index is still 14 percent below the 10-year average and 48 percent below the long-term average. Loss of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres statewide remains a concern, as Minnesota may lose about 393,000 acres of CRP land by 2018 because of reduced spending on the program at the national level.
Through the federally administered CRP, farmers are paid to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality.
Although CRP acreage continues to shrink in the long term, these losses have been partially offset by acquisitions of land for wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas, and through more land being put into easement by landowners. Many of these acres were permanently protected through funds provided by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council. The acres show the importance of the public investment in permanent conservation compared to temporary programs. However, grasslands are still in short supply overall in the pheasant range.
Minnesota’s 2016 pheasant season begins Saturday, Oct. 15, and ends Sunday, Jan. 1.
Roadside survey data
The DNR’s August roadside survey for pheasants showed a 29 percent increase in the overall pheasant index from 2015. This year’s statewide pheasant index was 52.1 birds per 100 miles of roadside driven.
All regions had increases in the pheasant index compared to last year except the southeast region which declined 31 percent. The highest pheasant counts were in the southwest, east-central and south central regions, where observers reported 53 to 96 birds per 100 miles driven.
Compared to 2015, the largest percentage increases were in the central, south central and east-central regions with increases of 72 percent, 70 percent and 27 percent, respectively. Hunters will find good harvest opportunities in all regions of the pheasant range except the southeast.
Pheasants and grassland habitat
Weather and habitat are the two main factors that drive Minnesota’s pheasant population trends.
Weather causes annual fluctuations in roadside indices. Grassland habitat for nesting and brood-rearing drives the longer-term pattern. Minnesota has been experiencing a steady decline in nesting habitat in the pheasant range, especially CRP, since 2007. The pheasant index and pheasant harvest also hit low points as a result.
This year, there are some positive signs that come with an uptick in CRP acres, but there is still concern about the long-term trend.
“CRP is by far our most important private lands conservation program in terms of number of acres of habitat on the ground, and it is vitally important to helping make conservation happen in an important agricultural state like Minnesota,” Davros said.
The federal Farm Bill, which includes CRP, is up for renewal in 2018, and federal funding levels for the program are a critical factor in levels of re-enrollment.
Additionally, Minnesota’s new buffer law that requires vegetation buffers along rivers, streams and ditches likely led to some land being enrolled in CRP this year. Enrolling land in CRP is one way to meet the requirements of the new state law. More information about buffers is available at www.mndnr.gov/buffers.
Weather conditions and survival
In warm winters more hens survive which means more nests in the spring. The 2016 hen index was 7.9 hens per 100 miles driven, up 31 percent from last year.
“We’ve had two back-to-back mild winters and two relatively good springs and summers in a row. There’s no doubt that this has really helped our pheasant population rebound, especially when you consider the habitat losses we’ve been facing since 2007 in Minnesota,” Davros said.
Another important indicator of annual reproduction is the number of broods observed during the roadside surveys. The 2016 brood index increased 39 percent from last year, and the number of broods per 100 hens increased 7 percent from 2015.
The average number of chicks per brood was down slightly (7 percent) compared to last year and the 10-year average. The estimated median hatch date was June 11, which was similar to last year and the 10-year average. Some areas of the state, especially the southwest and southeast regions, received above-average rainfall early in the nesting season, which may have forced hens to re-nest. However, above average temperatures during May and June helped young chicks survive.
Monitoring pheasant population trends is part of the DNR’s annual August roadside wildlife survey, which began in 1955. DNR wildlife managers and conservation officers in the farmland region of Minnesota conduct the survey during the first half of August. This year’s survey consisted of 172 25-mile-long routes, with 151 routes located in the pheasant range.
Observers drive each route in early morning and record the number and species of wildlife they see. The data provide an index of relative abundance and are used to monitor annual changes and long-term population trends of pheasants, gray (Hungarian) partridge, eastern cottontail rabbits, white-tailed jackrabbits, mourning doves and other wildlife.
The 2016 August Roadside Survey report and a map of pheasant hunting prospects can be viewed and downloaded from www.mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant. Also recorded in this year’s survey:
During the 2016 pheasant season that runs from Oct. 15 to Jan. 1, the daily bag limit is two roosters through November, and it increases to three roosters on Thursday, Dec. 1. The possession limit is six roosters (increasing to nine roosters on Dec. 1). Shooting hours are 9 a.m. to sunset. Additional details are available at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/pheasant.
Estimated hooking mortality harvest exceeds quota by more than 16,000 pounds
After eight Chippewa bands expressed strong concerns, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will close the Mille Lacs Lake catch-and-release walleye season on Tuesday, Sept. 6.
Warm water temperatures and high catch rates on Mille Lacs during July and August led to higher-than-expected hooking mortality rates -- an estimate of the number of fish that die after being caught and returned to the water. The state’s current estimated walleye harvest is 45,276 pounds, exceeding the original state quota by 16,676 pounds.
The state decided earlier this month to keep walleye fishing open out of concern for the impact of an early closure on the area economy. The catch-and-release-only regulations on Mille Lacs are successfully conserving the lake’s future spawning population of walleye.
Given the strong concerns of band leaders, the state will close the lake’s walleye season after the Labor Day holiday weekend.
The 2016 allocation established by the bands and the DNR in January was 40,000 pounds – 28,600 for state-licensed anglers and 11,400 for tribal fishing. Eight Chippewa bands hold treaty fishing rights to Mille Lacs Lake.
“Although the state’s estimated overage does not pose a conservation risk to the lake’s walleye population, we recognize the impact that continued fishing could have on our relationship with the bands,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
As of 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 6, the lake’s catch-and-release-only walleye season will close. Fishing for other species remains open. The closure will remain in effect through Wednesday, Nov. 30.
In addition to its reputation for world-class walleye fishing, Mille Lacs has also become a premier location for northern pike, muskie and small mouth bass fishing, and in September will host the Bassmaster Elite Series angler of the year championship.
“We certainly encourage anglers to continue visiting the Mille Lacs area this season to take advantage of the phenomenal fishing for other trophy species,” Landwehr said. “Last fall, a world-record muskie was caught and released on Mille Lacs by a fly-fisherman, and anglers are reporting excellent catch rates again this year.”
As in past years, the DNR will conduct fall walleye assessments to determine the health of the walleye population. Data from those surveys will help determine future seasons.
The DNR continues to invest in research to enhance its understanding and management of the lake’s fishery, including ongoing advanced research on hooking mortality, the addition of water temperature gauges at more locations and deeper depths, and additional technical work examining the changing ecology and food web of Mille Lacs, including the potential effects of invasive species.
Additional information about Mille Lacs fisheries management can be found at www.mndnr.gov/millelacslake. This year’s fishing regulations are on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/fishmn.
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DNR begins work on statewide deer management plan
Citizen participation encouraged
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has begun work on a new statewide deer management plan – a multi-phase project that will emphasize opportunities for citizen input and involvement.
“The DNR values the statewide significance and cultural traditions surrounding deer, and recognizes the importance of hearing from all citizens who have a stake in how deer are managed,” said Adam Murkowski, DNR big game program leader.
Overall goals of the deer plan include setting a statewide harvest objective, describing the DNR’s responsibilities and activities related to deer management, addressing regional variations in deer habitat and populations, and guiding the agency’s management of deer into the future.
The DNR has already had early conversations about the plan with interested groups. A statewide deer plan advisory committee will be formed this fall, and opportunities for citizen input will be announced. The DNR aims to complete the plan by the spring of 2018.
“To ensure the deer plan best reflects statewide interests, we’ll be actively soliciting input from the general population in addition to our invested stakeholder groups,” Murkowski said. “The ultimate success of the plan will depend largely on citizen participation in this process. Hunters are a primary stakeholder group and they will be actively involved, as will other interests, to ensure that decisions best serve the public.”
The deer plan advisory committee will include representatives from a wide array of interested groups as well as open, nonaffiliated seats. The committee is expected to begin work before the end of 2016 and meet monthly for the duration of the planning process.
“We’re currently working on the selection process and will announce in September how individuals can apply for committee membership,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski added that the planning process will include opportunities for citizen participation beyond the advisory committee, including public meetings, online comments and small group discussions. DNR staff will also be talking with participants about ways to stay involved and engaged in deer management even after the deer plan is implemented.
To stay informed about the deer management planning process, opportunities to get involved, and other deer-related topics, visit www.mndnr.gov/emailupdates and subscribe to the Deer Management email list.
For more information about deer management and hunting in Minnesota, visit www.mndnr.gov/deer.
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Small game hunter survey results released
About the same number of small game hunters took to the field in 2015 compared to the year before. By species, the number of pheasant hunters was up slightly, with duck hunters stable and grouse hunters down slightly, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources annual small game survey.
In 2015, the number of pheasant hunters was 63,350, representing an increase of 10 percent from 2014.
An estimated 76,243 people hunted ducks, essentially the same as last year.
Ruffed grouse hunter numbers were estimated at 79,058 a decrease of 5 percent from 2014.
Statewide estimates show small game hunters harvested about 243,176 pheasants (up 59 percent), 663,811 ducks (down 5 percent), and 267,997 ruffed grouse (down 11 percent) in 2015 with margins of error in the results of between 9 and 14 percent.
With the exception of pheasant, individual hunter success rates were comparable to 2014. Pheasant hunters harvested an average of 3.8 pheasants in 2015, which was 41 percent higher than 2014 when 2.7 pheasants were taken per hunter. Duck hunters harvested an average of 8.7 ducks in 2015 compared to 9.3 in 2014. Woodcock hunters harvested 3 birds per hunter, compared to 2.7 in 2014. Ruffed grouse hunters harvested an average of 3.4 grouse in 2015, compared to 3.6 in 2014.
The DNR annually surveys small game hunters to make estimates of both hunter numbers and harvest trends. For the 2015 season, 7,000 small game license buyers were surveyed of which 3,485 surveys were returned and usable.
The complete report is on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/publications/wildlife.
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Minnesota’s wolf population remains stable
Results from the latest wolf population survey show no significant change in Minnesota’s wolf population during the past four winters, according to the Department of Natural Resources.
The latest survey results estimate that within Minnesota’s wolf range there were 439 wolf packs and 2,278 wolves last winter, compared to 374 packs and 2,221 wolves the year before. There has been no biologically or statistically significant change in the size of the statewide mid-winter wolf population over the past four years.
“The consistent wolf population surveys over the last several years are further evidence of the health and stability of Minnesota’s wolf population,” said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR.
The population survey is conducted in mid-winter near the low point of the annual population cycle. Immediately following birth of pups each spring, the wolf population typically doubles, though many pups do not survive to the following winter.
Minnesota’s wolf population remains above the state’s minimum goal of at least 1,600 wolves and is above the federal recovery goal of 1,251 to 1,400.
Although the population estimate was not significantly different from last year, survey results suggest wolf packs used less area on average than the previous year (62 versus 73 square miles), resulting in an increase in the estimated number of packs. This pattern is consistent with the increase in deer numbers observed in many parts of wolf range.
According to John Erb, DNR wolf research scientist, when prey numbers change, wolves must eventually re-adjust to the new conditions.
“In recent years we’ve observed a decline in prey that translated into larger wolf pack territories, and the reverse is now to be expected if deer numbers continue to increase,” Erb said.
The survey estimated an average of 4.4 wolves per pack, down from an average pack size of 5.1 wolves per pack in last year’s survey. The slight drop in average pack size from last winter could be a result of many factors, although pack size is not as correlated with prey density as is territory size. The late start and early end to winter snow cover reduced the amount of time available for wolf pack counts, which could contribute to a lower estimate.
“Regardless of the explanation, over the past 30 years, average mid-winter pack size has not shown much variability, ranging from 5.6 to 4.3,” Erb said. “Counts are assumed to represent minimum estimates given the challenges with detecting all members of a pack together at the same time.”
The DNR’s goal for wolf management, as outlined in the state’s wolf management plan, is to ensure the long-term survival of wolves in Minnesota while addressing wolf-human conflicts. Wolves in Minnesota returned to the federal list of threatened species as a result of a Washington, D.C. federal district court ruling in December 2014.
Visit the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/wolves to find the full report, an FAQ and an overview of wolf management in the state, including the wolf management plan.
Personal responsibility key to preventing spread
The Department of Natural Resources has confirmed five new reports of zebra mussels in central Minnesota lakes.
Infested waters signs have been posted at DNR accesses on West Battle Lake and Otter Tail Lake in Otter Tail County, Lake Florida in Kandiyohi County, Pocket Lake in Douglas County, and a network of abandoned mine pits in Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area in Crow Wing County.
“While any new infestation is serious, it’s important to note that more than 98 percent of Minnesota lakes are not listed as infested with zebra mussels,” said Ann Pierce, section manager for the DNR's Ecological and Water Resources Division. “Boaters and anglers, DNR-trained watercraft inspectors and enforcement officers, lake associations and many others are working to keep it that way.”
DNR invasive species staff found one adult zebra mussel in the area of an initial citizen report and three adult zebra mussels about three miles from the initial report location on West Battle Lake. The DNR will monitor downstream lakes in Glendalough State Park.
A swimmer found a zebra mussel on a native clam in Otter Tail Lake. DNR invasive species staff searched more than 3,000 objects in the lake and did not find any other zebra mussels. They continue to conduct dock and lift searches, and ask the public to check their equipment and contact the DNR to report anything suspicious.
DNR researchers found zebra mussel veligers (larvae) in Lake Florida while doing other work in the lake. Veligers can be inadvertently but illegally transported in water from an infested lake as ballast, in live wells or in bait water. Boaters and anglers are required by law to open all drain plugs and drain all water when leaving any Minnesota lake or river and to keep drain plugs out during transport.
A swimmer reported a zebra mussel in Pocket Lake. No other zebra mussels were found during extensive snorkel searches by DNR invasive species staff, while connected lakes downstream have had relatively heavy infestations for some time.
Alert divers contacted the DNR upon finding numerous zebra mussels in two abandoned mine pits in the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. The DNR is surveying other mine pits in the area. Divers and all lake users are reminded to carefully clean and check their gear when leaving or entering any lake or moving from pit to pit, whether or not it is infested.
Reports from citizens are frequently the first indication of a new infestation, and the DNR appreciates the partnership of lake users, county watershed districts and lake associations.
To protect the state’s waters from the spread of invasive species and the environmental, recreational and economic damage they cause, Minnesota law requires boaters and anglers to:
In 2016, there are more DNR-trained watercraft inspectors and more decontamination units on Minnesota lakes than ever before. Watercraft inspectors check to ensure that boaters and anglers follow clean, drain, dispose laws and may deny access if necessary. Decontamination stations provide a free and thorough process of removing aquatic plants and animals.
More information is available at www.mndnr.gov/AIS.
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