Bolstered by an earlier start to the duck hunting season and more liberal regulations, Minnesota’s waterfowlers had a banner year in 2012, bagging an estimated 834,000 ducks — an increase of more than 100,000 and the highest harvest in nine years.
The good fortunes for duck hunters were mirrored for other hunters, too, according to the Department of Natural Resources’ annual small game harvest survey. Virtually every major small-game species except ruffed grouse saw harvest increases, including Canada geese, pheasants, mourning doves, woodcock, gray squirrels, cottontails and even crows.
The ruffed grouse population is nearing the bottom of its 10-year boom-to-bust cycle, so it wasn’t a surprise the grouse harvest declined almost 12 percent, to 355,000. What was a surprise was that the number of grouse hunters increased slightly last year, to 97,000 — the highest in 11 years. Generally hunter numbers rise and fall with the grouse population.
But it was the duck harvest that raised eyebrows. Two years ago, the DNR made some of the biggest duck regulation changes in a generation — including starting the season earlier, liberalizing bag limits for hen mallards and wood ducks, and adding new zones and split seasons.
The results have been dramatic: Duck harvest is up 35 percent since 2010. And last fall, early-season birds such as wood ducks made up the bulk of the increase, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates. Minnesota’s wood duck harvest hit 184,000 — the second highest on record, a 21 percent increase from 2011 and a 135 percent increase from 2010, before the regulations were changed.
Hunters also bagged 123,000 blue-winged teal, a 36 percent increase from 2011 and a 232 percent increase from 2010. Green-winged teal harvest was 56,000 last fall, a 51 percent increase from 2010.
“We provided more opportunity, with the early opener aimed at teal and wood ducks, and the harvest went up for those species,’’ said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.
Hunters have welcomed the changes. The number of Minnesota duck hunters has increased 24 percent since 2010, including an 8 percent jump last year, to over 90,000. It was the second consecutive gain after years of falling numbers, a trend that has long concerned conservationists, hunters and wildlife agencies.
“It’s all good news,’’ said Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. “Success breeds success. The changes we’ve made have given people more opportunities.’’
Hunters are encouraged by the earlier hunting in September, Nylin said, when teal and wood ducks are still prevalent. “People tend to see more birds earlier, which is also a driving force,’’ he said. And the warmer temperatures are more conducive to getting youths out, too, he said.
“We’re hearing nothing but positive comments for the changes,’’ Nylin said.
However, the high wood duck harvest could become a concern, Nylin said. That’s because, unlike most other duck species, there’s little data on wood ducks, so it’s uncertain how high is too high.
“That’s the one we’re watching pretty darn closely,’’ Nylin said. The three-bird bag limit allows hunters to take three hens, he noted. “We’re fine with the bag limits, but we tell our people not to shoot hens, let’s restrain ourselves.’’
The DNR plans to expand the banding of wood ducks to get a better idea of their population.
“The harvest was high, but there’s no information that says it’s too high,’’ Cordts said.
Hunters used to shoot around 160,000 wood ducks back in the 1970s, he said. The state’s breeding duck estimates last spring didn’t show a decline in wood ducks, he noted.
Overall, Cordts said, he’s not concerned Minnesota hunters are shooting too many ducks. Hunters harvested over 1 million ducks as recently as 2002.
The state’s mallard harvest is up 55 percent since 2010, to 197,000 last season. “That’s still below the long-term average of 215,000,’’ Cordts said.
This year’s duck season opens Sept. 21 — the earliest since 1945. Federal officials have proposed boosting the possession limits of ducks and geese to triple the daily bag. Currently, the possession limits are double the daily bag.
Pheasants still down
The good news: Hunters bagged 29 percent more birds — 264,000 — in 2012 than they did the previous year.
The bad news: It was just half the number of birds shot four years ago, and was the third-lowest harvest in the past 26 years.
In a nutshell, hunting wasn’t good.
And with habitat being lost rapidly, many believe pheasant hunting is unlikely to improve significantly any time soon. Remarkably, the DNR sold about 3,700 more pheasant stamps last year than in 2011. But the total — 90,541 — remains the second-lowest in 15 years.
Here are more 2012 harvest figures from the DNR’s survey: Canada geese, 315,000, up 6 percent; crows, 95,000, up 15 percent; woodcock, 32,000, up 22 percent; mourning doves, 97,000, up 24 percent; gray squirrels, 137,000, up 6 percent; cottontails, 67,000, up 73 percent.