Dennis Anderson

Dennis Anderson has been a Star Tribune outdoors columnist since 1993, before which, for 13 years, he held the same position at the Pioneer Press. He enjoys casting and shooting. Dogs, too, and horses. Also kids and, occasionally, crusading in his column for improved conservation.

Posts about Events

Protecting mallard hens, shortened shooting hours help Minnesota greenheads

Posted by: Dennis Anderson Updated: September 30, 2009 - 9:00 PM
In recent years, the Legislature changed — by shortening — the period of Minnesota's duck season during which daily shooting ended at 4 p.m. Evening shooting in the state in the past didn't begin until MEA weekend. This year it lasts only a week into the season.

The short story is that the Legislature caved on this restriction, falling for the argument that kids after school are being denied too many opportunities to hunt, due to the 4 p.m. closing.

In truth, the 4 p.m. closing and the state's historically conservative duck management regulations were good ideas. Now, of course, both are long gone — the 4 p.m. closing shortened  to only a week, and the noon opener backed up to 9 a.m.

The idea behind both was to protect the state's breeding mallards in the early season. One reason: These birds often, if not typically, return to nest in their home states and provinces. Better, the thinking went, to somewhat restrict mallard (particularly, among ducks) harvests here, and instead let that portion of the population that is fated to be taken by hunters to be killed proportionately through the flyway as the birds migrate. That way, a larger and sustained return of these birds is more likely.

But as duck hunting has declined in Minnesota, waterfowl officials, instead of stiffening their backs to protect remaining ducks still further, have instead bent over backward in an attempt to extend hunter opportunity.

To keep short-sighted hunters happy is another, and better, way to describe what the DNR here has done.

Give this much to the agency: They haven't caved on the one hen mallard restriction, keeping it again this season, rather than allow the two mallard hens the free-wheeling U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was willing to grant states in the Mississippi Flyway.

Minnesota's Duck Action Congress, a fledgling group that is just now getting its feet beneath it, has urged Minnesota hunters this fall to help their own cause by not exercising all shooting opportunities the state makes available to them.

In some other states, the DNR or its equivalent restricts hunters on their behalf; in Minnesota, hunters will have to do it themselves.

Examples: Perhaps some hunters will elect not to hunt past noon — thus encouraging birds in their areas to stay in the state longer, thereby in fact extending hunter opportunity. Perhaps other hunters won't shoot the roost — a well-known way to send ducks south. Perhaps other hunters will let ducks rest on some days, rather than shoot them at every opportunity.

Someday these and other restrictions — all of which will help hunters as well as ducks — will officially be in place in Minnesota. The state will have no choice unless it wants to have only remnant hunting here, and remnant duck watching as well.

Until then, take matters into your own hands. The state's ducks depend on you.

Fish and Wildlife Service says breeding ducks up overall by 13 percent from 2008

Posted by: Dennis Anderson Updated: July 2, 2009 - 3:35 PM

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that continental breeding ducks are up 13 percent over 2008, and up 28 percent over the long-term average.

Pond counts for the U.S. and Canada combined showed a 45 percent increase from last year’s estimate, and 31 percent above the long-term average. As reported here earlier, U.S. prairies, especially those in the Dakotas, are in excellent duck-producing shape, while some in Canada also were better this spring than last.

Here, from Ducks Unlimited, is a look at duck numbers by species and their change in breeding numbers from a year ago.
To read the entire Fish and Wildlife Service report, in PDF form, click here.

North Dakota ducks showed significant rebound, as water floods prairies

Posted by: Dennis Anderson Updated: June 23, 2009 - 6:14 PM
North Dakota wildlife officials have completed their spring breeding duck counts and the news is good: Ducks there are up 18 percent from last year and 87 percent from the long term average.

The reason: Water.

Good amounts of rain last fall followed by heavy winter snows set North Dakota (and South Dakota) up for significant snowmelt filling ponds and field depressions.

The result: Ducks that might otherwise have overflown the state to attempt nesting in prairie Canada instead stopped in North Dakota.

Here's the complete North Dakota report:

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 4 million birds, an increase of 18 percent from last year and 87 percent above the long-term average (1948-2008). The 2009 index is the eighth highest on record.

Pintail (up 157 percent and the highest since 1972) and northern shovelers (up 102 percent and the highest on record) showed significant increases. All other dabbling ducks except for gadwall (-42 percent) showed increases from last year (blue-winged teal, +53 percent; mallards, +43 percent; wigeon, +44 percent; and green-winged teal, +14 percent).

All diving ducks except canvasback (+96 percent) decreased from last year (scaup, -60 percent; redhead, -16 percent; and ruddy ducks, -10 percent). However, all species were well-above the long-term average.

The spring water index showed the largest single-year turnaround in the 62-year history of the survey, according to Mike Johnson, game management section leader. The index was up 293 percent from 2008 and 69 percent above the long-term average. It was the eighth highest in survey history and the highest since 1999.

Johnson cautions that the water index is based on basins with water, and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands. “Water conditions were generally lower than we had expected, given the exceptional snow conditions this past winter,” Johnson added. “However, the spring was fairly dry, and considerable drying had occurred in wetland basins between the snow melt and the time of the survey.”

Additional reports indicate that much of the Prairie Pothole Region from South Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is experiencing significantly improved water conditions due to late winter/early spring precipitation. “Thus ducks have a much larger landscape providing good water conditions than in recent years,” Johnson said.

However, nesting cover in North Dakota continues to decline. Since the beginning of 2007 North Dakota has lost more than 500,000 Conservation Reserve Program acres, and projections for the next two years indicate up to another 500,000 acres could be converted to cropland.

“This loss of one-third of our critical nesting cover will be disastrous for breeding ducks and hunting opportunities in North Dakota,” Johnson said.

The July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production and insight into what to expect this fall. Observations to date indicate that production will be improved across the state due to improved water conditions and increased wetland availability for brood production.


Ruffed grouse drumming count rises, but don't count on better hunting yet.

Posted by: Dennis Anderson Updated: June 16, 2009 - 11:44 AM

The big jump in ruffed grouse drumming counts (nearly 50 percent statewide) announced this week by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is reason to cheer. Mysterious as these birds are in their habits and choice of habitats, they are even more so in the cyclical rising and falling of their population.

So, an apparent increase in numbers — whatever the reason — is good news.

Yet until hunters in the field this fall actually see that grouse are more abundant, I wouldn’t get too excited. Something seems to have been affecting grouse in recent years, as increases — granted, none has been as significant as the most recent hike announced by the DNR — in drumming counts haven’t seemed to materialize in higher bird numbers.

Various explanations are possible.

One is that the rising and falling of the ruffed grouse population is so steeped in mystery that tracking these birds definitively — whether by drumming counts or any other method — essentially is an exercise in guessing.

Obviously, availability of habitat is important over the long term. The late grouse researcher Gordon Gullion stressed the importance of “edge’’ cover that exists between and among aspen forests (especially) of different ages.

On that front, changes are difficult to track, even in Minnesota, which arguably (actually, it’s beyond dispute) offers the best ruffed grouse hunting in the nation.

(Reasons are twofold: Lots of public land, and generally widespread availability of grouse-friendly forest cover.)

But what’s happened to (northern) Minnesota forests in recent years?

Lots, actually, and much of it unnoticed by upland hunters, much less by the general public.

Consider:

Lack of cutting on national forests, due to lawsuits and threats of lawsuits by “environmental’’ groups. The trend here is well-documented, and doubtless has affected various wildlife populations, among them ruffed grouse — which (see Guillion reference above) do best in the mix of forest-age classes that cutting produces.

The economic downturn and the resulting slowdown in cutting on state and private forests. In the early to mid-1980s, timber cutting (particularly of softwoods) across northern Minnesota was really cooking, as particle-board plants near Cook, Minn., and elsewhere operated at or near capacity to fill orders from the construction and home-building industries. Now some of those plants are shuttered, and cutting has slowed dramatically.

Timber cuttings are conducted differently now than in the past. Guillion and other grouse advocates traditionally have, as above, advocated clear-cutting to aid wildlife, including grouse. Not hundreds of acres of clear-cutting at once, but in relatively small parcels, say 40 to 80 acres (which affects forests not unlike wild fires did, traditionally). But clearcutting is not looked on as favorably any longer, as advocates for forest diversity have contributed to significant forest-management policy changes. Among these is the leaving now in many instances of hardwood “snags.’’ Result: Instead of a northern Minnesota clearcut that would be regenerated virtually entirely by fast-growing aspen, cuttings are occurring on which pines, oaks and maples (among other trees) are allowed to remain standing. Shade provided by these leftovers inhibits aspen re-growth. Yes, this generally is good for a mix of wildlife and forest diversity. But for grouse, clearcutting seems a better way to go.

That said, ruffed grouse remain a mysterious lot.

Why is it that in recent years, for example, as its population should have increased, based on spring drumming counts, haven’t hunters found more grouse?

The most likely explanation is that weather-related nesting conditions didn’t produce the expected hatch.

But it’s possible also that something else is at play — something such as West Nile disease, which some observers theorize could be killing enough grouse each summer to stunt expected population increases.

Time will tell. Or — given the manifold mysteries surrounding ruffed grouse — not.

But if hunters don’t find significantly more grouse in the woods this fall, something’s significantly amiss.

High School trapshooting teams to vie for state title

Posted by: Dennis Anderson Updated: June 11, 2009 - 3:53 PM

A discussion with Mark Zauhar, president of the Minnesota Trapshooting Association, about the upcoming Minnesota State High School Trapshooting Tournament, planned for the Minneapolis Gun Club on Sunday, June 14.

Question: How many teams will compete?

Answer: Eight. Prior lake. Armstrong. Minnetonka. Hopkins. St. Francis. White Bear. Worthington. Wayzata.

Q: Is this the first such tournament, in which high school teams sanctioned by their schools compete against one another?

A: As far as I know, although some people say years ago in Minnesota there was a similar tournament. 

Q: In the competing schools, trapshooting is a sanctioned sport, right? And competitors can win letters? 

A: Yes, the schools have to agree that trapshooting is a part of their athletic program. The kids can earn letters.

Q: Is the sport catching on in Minnesota at the high school level?

A: Yes. And we expect it will expand. It's a spring sport that usually is ended by now. But this year it will end with the state tournament. 

Q: How many kids are on a team?

A: We’re expecting 150 kids for the Sunday tournament. The number of shooters each school has varies from about eight to 30. On Sunday, everyone can shoot. But each school's best five-person team will compete against the best scores put up by the best teams from the other school. In this format, the assumption is the coaches will put the team's five best shooters on one team.

Q: The Minnesota Trapshooting Association is sponsoring the event, at a cost to it of about $10,000. What do you hope to get from it?

A: We want to grow our sport. And we want to give kids a chance to pursue trapshooting.

Q: How much does it cost a kid?

A: It's a 100-target event. So about $25. The rest of the costs, including lunch for everyone, MTA will pick up.

Q: How much room is there for growth for the sport at the high school level in Minnesota?

A: I think it will grow rapidly. Nebraska has 2,000 kids in their program. The fact that we went from five to eight teams this year is positive. I expect next year instead of 150 kids we'll have 300 to 400.

Q: Are some schools reluctant to recognize the sport because of the "gun'' aspect?

A: Some are. But we expect to overcome that, largely. All of the rules have to be followed. No guns or shells on school grounds. Practice is away from the school. And of course we stress safety.

Q: What time does the shoot begin on Sunday?

A: Ten a.m. We'll shoot 50 targets, break for lunch, and shoot the remaining 50.


      

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