An eight-year string of declining state duck stamp sales was broken this year -- offering hope that perhaps Minnesota duck hunter numbers have stabilized.

With the Canada goose season ongoing, the Department of Natural Resources already has sold more duck stamps this year, 88,880, than all of last year, when it sold 88,069.

The difference isn't large, but the trend is encouraging, DNR officials say. Sales had fallen yearly from 120,000 in 2002 to 88,000 last year -- the lowest since stamp sales began in 1977.

"That's positive,'' said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. "I had hoped they'd go up.''

The DNR long has been concerned about declining duck hunter numbers. The agency separately estimates the number of duck hunters, based on hunter surveys, and that figure is always less than actual stamp sales because some collectors buy the stamps.

Last year there were an estimated 73,000 duck hunters.

Officials aren't sure how to explain the spike in stamp sales -- though historic regulation changes and a good continental duck population may have helped.

Duck season: average

The duck season ended with a whimper last week. By most accounts, it was a decent season.

"It wasn't our best season ever,'' Cordts said. "I'd rank it somewhere in the middle of the pack.''

Harvest reports from hunter surveys won't be available until next July, so Cordts can only guess how the season went based on anecdotal reports, which vary widely.

"Some guys had the best season ever; some said they're done, they're never hunting here again,'' he said.

But hunters apparently liked the historic regulation changes offered this year. Those changes included an earlier start to the season, north-south zones with a split season, and liberalized bag limits for hen mallards and wood ducks.

"I heard very few complaints,'' Cordts said. "Every change we made, our expectation was it would increase harvest.''

Cordts said he expects the DNR to retain the changes. It could add a third duck hunting zone in the southeast along the Mississippi River. Assuming federal officials maintain a "liberal'' duck hunting package in 2012, Minnesota's season could open on Sept. 22 -- two days earlier than this year.

Deer harvest improves

Minnesota's firearms deer hunters bagged 162,670 whitetails this season, down just 9,200, or about 5 percent, from last year.

That's not bad, considering harvest was down 20 percent after opening weekend.

So far, all deer hunters, including firearms, archery and muzzleloader, have killed almost 184,000 whitetails, down about 15,000 from last year.

Pheasant woes

You might think there were no pheasants in Minnesota, based on state pheasant stamp sales.

More than 20,000 hunters apparently have decided to skip ringneck hunting here this year because of the 64 percent decline in the pheasant population. Pheasant stamp sales have plunged from 104,227 at this time last year to 83,820 so far this year.

Barring an unlikely late-season surge in sales, it will be the largest drop in 27 years.

South Dakota roosters

So how is South Dakota, the No. 1 pheasant state in the nation, doing with license sales, given that its ringneck population was down nearly 50 percent? Sales there are down, too, but just 4 percent. The Game, Fish and Parks Department has sold 167,000 resident and nonresident small game licenses this far. Nonresident sales are down about 5 percent, from 96,371 last year to 91,691, so far this year. And slightly fewer Minnesota hunters have traveled to South Dakota. The state has sold 22,000 nonresident licenses to Minnesotans, compared to almost 26,000 last year.

Did you know?

• The DNR again will conduct a scientific survey of 3,000 to 4,000 duck hunters this winter to assess their opinions on this year's regulation changes. The surveys will be mailed in January.

• Small-game license sales are down about 4 percent from 2010. The DNR has sold about 287,000 so far.

• The 2012 DNR Roundtable meetings with 300 citizen stakeholders -- an annual invitation-only event that the agency uses to get public input on natural resource issues -- will be held in St. Paul next month for the first time. An agenda hasn't been set yet.

• A dog being walked on a leash along a Crow Wing County snowmobile trail near Crosslake got caught in two leg-hold traps recently. The dog is OK, and DNR conservation officer Nikki Shoutz is investigating.

• From conservation officer Bob Mlynar of Aitkin: "A swan that landed at the Aitkin Airport was taken to the Garrison Animal Hospital to see if it was sick or just low on fuel.''

• Anglers are venturing onto ice in parts of Minnesota. Officials urge extreme caution.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com