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Population counts showed variable results for several species of ducks that breed in Minnesota, according to the results of the annual Department of Natural Resources spring waterfowl surveys.
“Mallard and blue-winged teal counts declined some from last year but we saw some increases in other species like ring-necked ducks, wood ducks and hooded mergansers,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. "However, there is always considerable variability in the annual estimates. The survey is designed for mallards and our breeding mallard population remains near its long-term average."
This year’s mallard breeding population was estimated at 214,000, which is 15 percent below last year’s estimate of 250,000 breeding mallards and 6 percent below the long-term average measured each year since 1968.
The blue-winged teal population is 159,000 this year, 51 percent below last year’s estimate and 25 percent below the long-term average.
The combined populations of other ducks such as ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads is 263,000, which is 23 percent higher than last year and 48 percent above the long-term average.
The estimate of total duck abundance (excluding scaup) is 636,000, which is 19 percent lower than last year and 3 percent above the long-term average.
The estimated number of wetlands was 20 percent higher than last year and 5 percent above the long-term average. Wetland numbers can vary greatly based on annual precipitation.
The survey is used to estimate the number of breeding ducks or breeding geese that nest in the state rather than simply migrate through. In addition to the counts by the DNR, the continental waterfowl population estimates will be released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer.
DNR survey methods
The same waterfowl survey has been done each year since 1968 to provide an annual index of breeding duck abundance. The survey covers 40 percent of Minnesota and includes much of the state’s best remaining duck breeding habitat.
A DNR waterfowl biologist and pilot count all waterfowl and wetlands along established survey routes by flying low-level aerial surveys from a fixed-wing plane. The survey is timed to begin in early May to coincide with peak nesting activity of mallards. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides ground crews who also count waterfowl along some of the same survey routes. These data are then used to correct for birds not seen by the aerial crew.
This year’s Canada goose population was estimated at 322,000 geese, higher than last year’s estimate of 202,000 geese and 9 percent above the long-term average.
“With the early spring and favorable habitat, Canada geese had a very good nesting year and there are lots of young goslings present across the state,” Cordts said.
The number of breeding Canada geese in the state is estimated via a helicopter survey of nesting Canada geese in April. The survey counts Canada geese on randomly selected plots located in prairie, transition and forested areas of the state and includes most of the state except for the Twin Cities area metro area.
The 2017 Minnesota waterfowl report is available at mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring drumming counts were up 57 percent statewide this year compared to last year, according to a survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“The grouse population is nearing its 10-year peak,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “Grouse populations tend to rise and fall on a decade-long cycle and counts this year are typical of what we expect as the population nears the peak.”
Drumming is a low sound produced by males as they beat their wings rapidly and in increasing frequency to signal the location of their territory. Drumming displays also attract females that are ready to begin nesting. Ruffed grouse populations are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions.
Drumming counts are an indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population. The number of birds present during the fall hunting season also depends upon nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer. For the past 68 years, DNR biologists have monitored ruffed grouse populations. This year, DNR staff and cooperators from 15 organizations surveyed 122 routes across the state.
The 2017 survey results for ruffed grouse were 2.1 drums per stop statewide. The averages during 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 were 0.9 and 1.1 and 1.1 and 1.3, respectively. Counts vary from about 0.6 drums per stop during years of low grouse abundance to about 2.0 during years of high abundance.
Results this year follow an increase from 2015 to 2016. In the northeast survey region, which is the core of Minnesota’s grouse range, counts were 2.5 drums per stop; in the northwest there were 1.6 drums per stop; in the central hardwoods, 0.9 drums per stop; and in the southeast, 0.8 drums per stop. Statewide, drums per stop were as high as during the last peak in drumming in 2009, but have not yet reached previous peak levels in all regions.
For grouse hunters, the large increase in drumming counts this year is sure to be a signal of good times ahead during the fall season, said Ted Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator.
“We’re excited about the way things are looking,” he said. “We have more good grouse habitat than anywhere in the lower 48 states.”
Grouse hunters have a wealth of public land from which to choose. There are 49 ruffed grouse management areas across northern and central Minnesota that provide destinations for hunters in areas with good potential for producing grouse. There are 528 wildlife management areas in the ruffed grouse range that cover nearly 1 million acres and 600 miles of hunter walking trails. State forests, two national forests and county forest lands also offer many additional acres of public land for hunting.
“Grouse hunting need not be complicated and it’s another way to experience the outdoors in the fall,” Dick said. “Combine all that with our grouse numbers nearing peak and this is shaping up to be a great year to try grouse hunting for those who haven’t.”
Sharp-tailed grouse counts similar to last year
To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on traditional mating areas, which are called leks or dancing grounds.
“The average number of sharp-tailed grouse was similar this year compared to 2016,” Roy said.
The data on sharp-tailed grouse take some interpretation, because survey results can be influenced by how many leks are counted or changes in how many birds are at each lek year to year.
Comparisons of the same leks counted in both years indicate that counts per lek were similar to last year in both survey regions and statewide. This year’s statewide average of 9.7 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980. The 2009 average of 13.6 was as high as during any year since 1980. During the last 25 years, the sharp-tailed grouse index has been as low as seven birds counted per dancing ground.
The DNR’s 2017 grouse survey report and grouse hunting information can be found at mndnr.gov/hunting/grouse.
New fisheries data collected by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources show the total safe harvest allocation for walleyes on Mille Lacs Lake (44,800 pounds) has already been exceeded this season. To protect the fishery and ensure the long-term sustainability of Mille Lacs Lake’s walleye population, the DNR announced today that walleye fishing will remain closed until Friday, Aug. 11.
In order to extend the walleye fishing season through Labor Day, the state will allow for an additional 11,000 pounds of walleye harvest. Catch-and-release walleye fishing will run from Friday, Aug. 11, through Monday, Sept. 4, for the Labor Day weekend. Walleye fishing will then be closed from Tuesday, Sept. 5, through Thursday, Nov. 30.
As these regulation changes were announced, Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr reiterated the state’s commitment to rebuilding and sustaining a healthy walleye fishery in Mille Lacs Lake.
“Improving the walleye population in Mille Lacs is a top priority for the DNR,” Landwehr said. “We deeply regret the hardships these new regulations will cause for anglers and business owners. But they are essential to protect and enhance the future of walleye fishing in the lake for future generations. We will continue doing everything we can to understand the challenges facing the walleye fishery, and take whatever actions we can to resolve this very difficult situation.”
Landwehr and DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira noted that allowing for additional catch-and-release fishing in August is essential for area anglers, businesses, and Mille Lacs area communities. The decision to allow for this additional harvest was made with input from the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee.
“We want to allow as much walleye fishing on Mille Lacs as possible,” Pereira said. “So even though state anglers already have caught their quota of fish, the DNR will dip into the allowed conservation overage to reopen the season on Aug. 11.”
Through the closure, anglers on Mille Lacs Lake may fish for all other species in the lake including bass, muskellunge and northern pike. When fishing for other species, only artificial baits and lures will be allowed in possession, except for anglers targeting northern pike or muskie, who may fish with sucker minnows longer than 8 inches.
A prohibition on night fishing will remain in place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Nov. 30. However, anglers may fish for muskie and northern pike at night, but may only use artificial lures longer than 8 inches or sucker minnows longer than 8 inches. Bowfishing for rough fish also is allowed at night but possession of angling equipment is not allowed and only rough fish may be in possession.
Understanding walleye fishing quotas on Mille Lacs this year, and why that quota was reached earlier than predicted
The DNR and the Chippewa bands that cooperatively manage Mille Lacs Lake agreed this year to harvest quotas of 44,800 pounds for state anglers and 19,200 pounds for tribal fishing. They also agreed that up to 75,000 pounds of walleye could be harvested from the lake from Dec. 1, 2016 to Nov. 30, 2017.
That agreement allows the state to use a built-in buffer – the 11,000 pounds difference between the 75,000 pounds conservation cap and the 64,000 pounds combined harvest quotas – in an attempt to allow catch-and-release walleye fishing through Labor Day, following the mid-summer closure. Bi-weekly creel surveys show that state anglers already have reached their quota.
“The DNR is using its full allotment to maximize opportunities to fish for walleye on Mille Lacs without violating our agreement,” Pereira said. “The DNR, just like area businesses, would greatly prefer to not have fishing restrictions in place. But sustaining and stabilizing Mille Lacs’ walleye population is our primary obligation and public responsibility.”
Continuing the walleye fishing closure will reduce the number of fish that die after being caught and released, a condition known as hooking mortality. The likelihood of fish suffering hooking mortality increases as water temperatures warm.
High walleye catch rates on Mille Lacs have increased DNR fishing projections. A hot walleye bite attracted more anglers to the lake, resulting in angler effort that is about double what it was in 2016.
“Cooler than normal temperatures kept hooking mortality rates low, but more anglers fished Mille Lacs, particularly catching walleye longer than 20 inches,” Pereira said. “That increased the poundage of fish caught and put us over our walleye quota.”
According to the DNR, bigger fish are biting, in part, because there is a shortage of food for larger walleye. Last fall’s assessment showed that larger walleye were thinner than average.
Mille Lacs’ hot bite also reflects the findings of studies done in many other fisheries that show catchability actually increases when fish population drops. In Mille Lacs, walleye congregate in preferred spots rather than disperse evenly throughout the lake. Fewer fish in the lake means there is more room in the preferred spots for fish to gather, creating a situation where a larger percentage of the population is in position to be caught rather than gathering in a less preferred but less fished area.
More information about Mille Lacs Lake, the regulation adjustments and management of the fishery is available on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/millelacslake.
New solutions are being sought to improve and sustain a healthy walleye fishery
The DNR announced in June that a new external review team of scientists will take a fresh look at Mille Lacs Lake’s walleye fishery, using all of the best science available to gain a better understanding of the lake. This new review, led by walleye expert Dr. Chris Vandergoot of the U.S. Geological Survey, will provide additional recommendations to improve fisheries management of the lake, and contribute to a long-term solution to improving and sustaining a healthy walleye fishery for future generations. The group’s report is expected in time to help guide and inform fisheries management decisions for the 2018 season.
DNR encourages Minnesotans to fish for other abundant species on Mille Lacs Lake
As today’s walleye fishing regulation changes were announced, the DNR encouraged all Minnesotans to visit Mille Lacs Lake to fish the other abundant species that the lake has to offer. Mille Lacs Lake’s other opportunities for top-notch fishing will not be affected by the regulation adjustment.
Bassmaster Magazine named Mille Lacs the nation’s best bass lake in June and will send 50 of the country’s best anglers to the lake In September for its Angler of the Year tournament. Northern pike abound in Mille Lacs, along with muskellunge. In early July, a woman from southern Minnesota caught and released in Mille Lacs what may have been Minnesota’s largest-ever muskellunge.
To learn more about Mille Lacs Lake and its many great fishing opportunities, visit the DNR website. To plan visit to the Mille Lacs area, visit the Mille Lacs Area Tourism Council website.
Q: What is happening with the walleye season this summer on Mille Lacs Lake?
A: The closure that began July 8 and was set to end July 28 is being extended by two weeks. That means walleye fishing will reopen at 6:01 a.m. on Aug. 11 for catch-and-release only through Labor Day. A night fishing closure also will remain in place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Nov. 30.
Q: How does this affect fishing for other species?
A: Fishing regulations for other species such as smallmouth bass, muskie and northern pike remain the same. During the night closure, there is an exception for muskie and northern pike anglers using artificial lures and sucker minnows longer than 8 inches.
Q: Why did the DNR extend the closure?
A: While the DNR wants to allow as much walleye fishing on Mille Lacs as possible, the state is also required to abide by cooperative agreements made with eight American Indian Chippewa bands. The two weeks of additional closure allows the state to abide by a harvest quota set earlier this year with the bands.
The DNR and the bands agreed to harvest quotas of 44,800 pounds for state anglers and 19,200 pounds for tribal fishing. They also agreed that up to 75,000 pounds of walleye could be sustainably harvested from the lake from Dec. 1, 2016 to Nov. 30, 2017 in order to conserve the population
That agreement allows the state to use a built-in buffer – the 11,000 pounds difference between the conservation cap of 75,000 pounds and the combined harvest quota of 64,000 pounds – in an attempt to allow catch-and-release walleye fishing through Labor Day, following the mid-summer closure.
The latest creel survey data shows that state anglers reached their quota of 44,800 pounds of walleye caught from Mille Lacs in early July. Even though state anglers already have caught their quota of fish, the DNR is dipping into the allowed conservation reserve in order to reopen the season on Aug. 11.
Q: Why has the walleye population in Mille Lacs declined? What is the DNR doing in the long-term to try to conserve the population?
A: The vast majority of walleye that hatch do not survive to their third autumn in the lake. Walleye numbers have declined to the point that it has become important to protect spawning-sized walleye, particularly the class of walleye that hatched in 2013. It is important to protect the large 2013 year class to replenish aging spawning stock. Most males from the 2013 class are now mature, but females will not start to contribute in large numbers until next spring. The state is committed to conserving the population of walleyes born in 2013 to improve and rebuild a sustainable population for the future.
Q: Why do we count hooking mortality during a closed walleye season?
A: The amount that state anglers can kill (as spelled out in state-bands agreements) also must include fish that die as a result of hooking mortality, the fish that die after being caught and then released back into the water. During the closure, some anglers still catch walleye incidentally and some of those fish die after being released. Under the state-band agreements, those dead fish must be calculated and counted against the state’s allocation.
Q: How did this cooperative management between the state and the bands of Mille Lacs Lake come to be?
A: Recall that in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld lower-court decisions that allowed the Mille Lacs band and seven other Chippewa bands to exercise off-reservation fishing and hunting rights. The lower federal court also set up guidelines, known as stipulations and protocols, for both sides to follow. These stipulations and protocols provide a framework for how the bands and the state must work cooperatively to manage shared natural resources, including Mille Lacs fish. In their agreements, the DNR and the bands are required to annually establish the number of walleye that can safely be harvested from Mille Lacs while ensuring sufficient remaining walleye in the lake for a healthy fishery.
Q: If the walleye population is in decline, why are anglers catching so many?
A: Fish are biting for two reasons. First, there is a shortage of food for larger walleye. Last fall’s assessment showed that larger walleye were thinner than average. Second, studies in many fisheries show that catchability actually increases when fish population decline.
In Mille Lacs, walleye congregate in preferred spots rather than disperse evenly throughout the lake. Fewer fish in the lake means there’s more room in the preferred spots for fish to gather, and anglers find these spots where they can catch a larger portion of fish. Finally, while the walleye population has decreased considerably (by half or more), the amount of fishing pressure has declined by a lot more. This means that there are more walleye per angler fishing Mille Lacs today.
Q: How is the DNR using science and research to help the walleye population?
A: Mille Lacs Lake is the most studied lake in Minnesota. It is also a complex and changing system. The agency conducts a large number of surveys on the lake annually. These surveys include assessing the abundance of young walleye; setting 52 nets to assess adult abundance; using fine-mesh nets each summer to determine abundance of food (prey fish) for walleye; and using interviews with anglers around the lake (called creel surveys) to estimate the number of fish anglers are catching. The DNR also periodically tags walleye and other species to provide actual population estimates. We are tagging bass this year in cooperation with angling groups, and will be tagging walleye in 2018 and 2019 when the 2013 year class will be reaching full maturity.
Q: What is the purpose of the external review the DNR has initiated?
A: The DNR has asked Dr. Chris Vandergoot to lead an independent review of the DNR’s scientific approaches to manage Mille Lacs Lake. Vandergoot is a key member of the international team that co-manages a very significant walleye fishery in Lake Erie. He works for the U.S. Geological Survey in the Sandusky Lake Erie Biological station in Ohio. His review report will be available to the public in early 2018 and will help inform fisheries management decisions for the 2018 season.
Q: What does the future look like for Mille Lacs walleye?
A: It is unlikely that Mille Lacs walleye production will return to the levels that state anglers enjoyed over 20 years ago. The ecosystem of Mille Lacs is going through extreme change, starting with increased water clarity in the mid-1990s, to impacts today from aquatic invasive species such as spiny water flea and zebra mussels. Longer growing seasons are also helping some species such as smallmouth bass but may be hurting others. While walleye will still be abundant, the future fishery will be more diverse, offering angling opportunities for a greater variety of fish.
An unusual catch turned up in a Lyon County lake, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
DNR fisheries workers conducting a lake survey on Cottonwood Lake captured an American eel in their trapnet on June 23. The female eel was 37.4 inches.
American eel spawn in the Sargasso Sea, located in the north Atlantic Ocean. However, the American eel spends the majority of its life in freshwater habitat before returning to the Sargasso Sea to complete the life cycle. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, researchers have never witnessed eels spawning in the wild. They assume adult eels die after mating occurs.
Larvae of this fish ride the currents randomly for hundreds or even thousands of miles before finding freshwater habitat. That makes this particular eel’s journey all the more impressive, having likely ridden ocean currents in to the Gulf of Mexico and swimming upstream thousands of miles via the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
“It’s not unheard of to find an American eel in the Mississippi or Minnesota River,” said DNR southern region fisheries manager Jack Lauer. “The interesting aspect to this particular eel is that it was caught in a lake a good distance from the river. It was well in excess of 30 river miles upstream from the confluence of the Yellow Medicine and Minnesota rivers.”
The eel on Cottonwood Lake was found during a routine standard survey. Those surveys are conducted every few years on a body of water to sample fish populations and the health of the fishery. That information is used to help manage a fishery.
This particular eel was a first for Spicer area assistant fisheries supervisor Brad Carlson.
“I’ve been conducting surveys since 1992 and have never seen an eel during a survey,” Carlson said. “At first I thought it was a bowfin because of the wavy dorsal fin. But, I quickly realized that it was an American eel. It was a surprise because you don’t expect to find them in a shallow lake like Cottonwood – especially one so far from the Mississippi River.”
Carlson said he released the eel back in to Cottonwood Lake.
The lake-bound eel is rare, but not unprecedented. DNR fisheries records show that American eel commonly are found in the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. However, this is only the second American eel that’s been discovered in a lake during a standard fisheries survey in the past 25 years. The other eel was found in Spring Lake, which has a direct connection to the Mississippi River.
More information on the American eel and other rare species is available on the Minnesota DNR website.
Hunters, anglers and everyone who has a role in selling licenses for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources can anticipate a new electronic license system that will enhance customer service starting in the spring of 2020.
“Over the next two years, we will be modernizing the electronic license system to create a better and more efficient experience for customers – changes that will save the agency as much as $1.5 million,” said Steve Michaels, DNR licensing program director. “Customers will find it easier to purchase licenses and tags online and record their harvests from a mobile device or computer 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
The DNR sells licenses through a vendor that administers the electronic license system that allows customers to buy licenses in-person at nearly 1,500 locations around Minnesota, online and by telephone. The contract with the current vendor expires in 2020.
The first step in modernizing the license system happened in late May when the DNR issued a request for proposals for contractors to bid on a project to develop a new system.
“The new system won’t go into effect for more than two years but we have to begin work now to allow enough time to choose a vendor, design and implement the system, and communicate with customers and license sales agents,” Michaels said. “Across the spectrum of retail, customers are demanding the convenience of modern technology as part of their purchasing experiences, whether it is movie theaters, airlines, or retail stores.”
The DNR sells about 1.5 million fishing licenses and 580,000 hunting and trapping licenses.
Use of the current system continues through March of 2020, and the DNR plans to provide regular updates through the development of the new system.
Buy fishing and hunting licenses at any DNR license agent, online with a mobile or desktop device at mndnr.gov/buyalicense, or by phone at 888-665-4236. Mobile buyers receive a text or email that serves as proof of a valid fish or game license to state conservation officers.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced this week that the agency will initiate an external review of Mille Lacs Lake walleye management and harvest strategy. The review is part of the scientific process of adaptive fisheries management and will help to increase transparency with the public.
“Mille Lacs Lake issues are complex, and peer review is an important component of sound science,” said Don Pereira, DNR fisheries chief.
Pereira said the review will cover several elements, including:
Pereira also said the DNR will provide any data and other fisheries management information needed for a proper, thorough and accurate review by this external review team.
However, DNR staff will not be involved with this independent review by fisheries experts from across the Great Lakes basin. Dr. Chris Vandergoot of the U.S. Geological Survey, Lake Erie Biological Station, is the lead.
A member of the external review team will meet with Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee members later this summer to document the committee’s concerns, questions and issues it wants the review to address.
In addition to the Mille Lacs Fisheries Advisory Committee, the DNR is seeking the involvement of the Fisheries Technical Committee and the eight Chippewa bands that have rights to harvest fish from the lake under the 1837 Treaty.
“We’re eager to see the results,” Pereira said. “The review will be complete sometime next winter. Having more people review will add to everyone’s understanding of the lake and options for the future.”
Cost for hunting and fishing licenses won’t increase until 2018
The Department of Natural Resources reminds state park visitors, snowmobilers and ATV riders that modest fee increases will go into effect on July 1.
However, the cost of fishing and hunting licenses, including deer licenses, won’t increase until 2018.
“I want to thank the many Minnesotans and state lawmakers who supported these modest increases in parks, snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle, hunting and fishing fees during the recent legislative session,” said Commissioner Tom Landwehr. “These fees will help maintain quality outdoor experiences for now and for future generations. We are fortunate to live in a state that offers such great outdoor opportunities and passionate citizenry that supports those resources.”
One-day state park vehicle permits will increase $2 to $7 and year-round vehicle permits will increase $10 to $35. These fees have not changed in more than a decade, and the increases were needed to continue to provide quality facilities and services at these important places at a level that maintains their nation-leading status.
Also effective July 1, the fee to register all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles will increase and a $15 license will be required for ice shelters that do not collapse, fold or disassemble.
“ATV and snowmobile clubs throughout the state provide a large and well-maintained system of trails throughout Minnesota,” Landwehr said. “These trails are supported in large part by the user fees that contribute to the state’s grant-in-aid trail systems. High-quality trails give snowmobilers and other motorized recreation enthusiasts a reason to travel, which bolsters tourism and strengthens local economies in Minnesota.”
For a list of all the Parks and Trails fees that are changing, visit www.mndnr.gov/parks_trails/feedetails.html.
Effective with the 2018 license year, the cost for some fishing and hunting licenses will rise. The cost of a resident fishing license will increase $3, from $22 to $25, and a resident deer license will increase $4, from $30 to $34. A complete list of license fee increases is available on the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov/LicenseDollarsAtWork.
These increases won’t build fish and wildlife programs but do ensure that fish stocking will not be reduced; deer management and research will continue at current levels; and nuisance wildlife and wildlife damage complaints will be answered in a timely manner.
For more information, contact the DNR Information Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or 888-646-6367 (8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday).
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