Doug Smith

Even if the fish aren’t biting, the ducks aren’t flying and the pheasants aren’t flushing, Doug Smith says any day spent outdoors is a good day. A Minnesota native, he’s been covering the outdoors for the Star Tribune since 1995. He considers walleyes fried over a campfire to be gourmet cuisine.

Billions of bugs: Spring midge hatch at Lake Mille Lacs is quite a sight (and sound)

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 13, 2014 - 5:52 PM

A friend and I were driving along Lake Mille Lacs on Thursday evening when we heard what sounded like rain hitting our truck.

But it wasn't rain, it was clouds of midges that had recently emerged from the lake. So we pulled into a public access to experience the amazing annual phenomenon.

And it was amazing. We almost needed head nets to breathe. At the time, I mistakenly thought the bugs were mayflies, but Rick Bruesewitz, DNR area fisheries manager, said they were midges – commonly called fish flies or lake flies – a smaller variation of the flying bugs.

Black clouds of them hung over the highway and the lake, and, of course, quickly covered us. The billions of bugs produced a loud, eerie hum.

"It is an incredible thing,'' said Brusewitz. "It happens just about every year. They (clouds of bugs) look like tornadoes. You'll have spirals of them above trees or roads. Some nights are worse than others.''

Like mayflies, the midges emerge from their larval stage at the bottom of lakes, then float to the surface and eventually fly away. Fish gobble them up in the water, and birds do likewise once the bugs are airborne.

Wisconsin's ruffed grouse population declines again

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 10, 2014 - 2:38 PM

Ruffed grouse populations in Wisconsin have dropped slightly again this spring as the population heads for the bottom of its boom-to-bust cycle.

Wisconsin's roadside grouse survey showed a 1 percent decline from last year.

"This decrease is quite minor, and isn't unexpected at this point in the population cycle,'' said Brian Dhuey, DNR wildlife surveys coordinator.

 Ruffed grouse populations are known to rise and fall over a nine to 11 year cycle. The last peak in Wisconsin's cycle occurred in 2011

"We are headed to the low point in the cycle, which usually occurs in years ending in a 4, 5, or 6, so we are either at the low point or getting close; only time will tell," Dhuey said.

Minnesota's spring grouse drumming survey was recently completed, but the results won't be available until next month. Minnesota's population, too, is on the downswing, but grouse fans are hoping the snowy winter helped more birds survive. Grouse burrow in light, fluffy snow for safety.

In Wisconsin, one of the primary regions for grouse in the state, the central region, showed a 24 percent drop in the number of drums heard per stop. A second primary region in northern Wisconsin showed a 3 percent increase.

Here's more from a DNR news release:

According to Scott Walter, DNR upland wildlife ecologist, maturation of southern Wisconsin's forest community in recent decades and the resulting loss of dense, brushy areas that grouse need for cover has led to a lower ruffed grouse population.

"Ruffed grouse are closely linked to young forest habitats that develop following disturbances, notably logging activities," Walter said. "While we often focus as hunters on grouse numbers in a single year, it's important to remember that the long-term health of grouse and other early-successional wildlife is dependent upon the availability of the dense young cover they require. In Wisconsin, we need to ensure that enough timber harvests are occurring to meet the habitat needs of ruffed grouse and other early-successional dependent wildlife"

In regard to the slight increase in northern Wisconsin, Gary Zimmer, coordinating biologist for the Ruffed Grouse Society, points to this past winter's harsh weather.

"While cold temperatures and deep snow are generally hard on resident wildlife populations, ruffed grouse often thrive in winters like the one we just experienced," noted Zimmer. "Grouse roost under the snow, which can effectively serve as a blanket to hide them from predators' view and keep them warm even during very cold periods. It might be well below zero out in the open, but under even a few inches of snow the temperature might only be a few degrees below freezing. Grouse also utilize tree buds as food during winter, so snow cover doesn't reduce food availability."

Zimmer continues, "Weather conditions, especially during the brood rearing period in late May and early June, also play an important role in the fall ruffed grouse numbers. Newly-hatched grouse chicks are very sensitive to chilling, and warm, dry conditions allow high survival during the first few weeks of life."

"Grouse hunters are used to the cyclic nature of ruffed grouse populations, and know that during low periods grouse can still be found in the best cover. Hunters might have to work a bit harder to flush birds, but sunny October days with your dog in the north woods are tough to beat, and Wisconsin still has some of the best grouse hunting in the country," Zimmer said.

Complete survey results can be found by visiting dnr.wi.gov and searching for "wildlife reports." For more information on ruffed grouse in Wisconsin, search "ruffed grouse hunting."

Concerned over dramatic habitat loss, Pheasants Forever to open office in South Dakota

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 9, 2014 - 11:10 AM

Concerned over a dramatic loss of habitat and pheasants in South Dakota – the nation's top pheasant state -- Pheasants Forever plans to open its first regional headquarters office in Brookings, S.D.

Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever’s long-time vice president of government affairs, will permanently move to South Dakota becoming the organization’s point person in the state. The move comes as the organization ramps up efforts to address substantial habitat losses and land use changes in South Dakota, which have resulted in a dramatic decline in pheasant numbers.

“South Dakota is the epicenter of pheasants in the United States. Unfortunately, South Dakota is also the epicenter of grassland habitat loss,” explained Howard Vincent, Pheasants Forever’s president and chief executive officer. 

According to a 2012 South Dakota State University (SDSU) study, 451,000 acres of South Dakota grasslands were converted to agricultural production from 2006 to 2011. Last year, the state's pheasant index dropped 64 percent, which officials blamed on habitat loss coupled with poor weather conditions during nesting season.

Here's more from PF news release: 

In naming Nomsen to the South Dakota post, Vincent said, “Dave has a 30-year track record of conservation victories, he’s a former South Dakota resident, graduate of South Dakota State University, and served on the faculty of SDSU’s Wildlife Department. He’s moving to South Dakota because we need to reverse the habitat decline there and he’s the perfect guy for the job.”

Pheasants Forever was formed in St. Paul, Minn. in 1982 and has always been, and will continue to be, headquartered in the Twin Cities. While the organization employs field representatives throughout the country, it’s never operated a regional headquarters. Nomsen intends to find office space in Brookings and will be working to strengthen relationships with federal, state and private groups in the state.

“Pheasants are such an important part of the state’s culture that there is a rooster pheasant flying over Mount Rushmore on the commemorative South Dakota quarter,” explained Nomsen. “South Dakota’s pheasant traditions are at risk because of habitat loss. We intend to work with landowners, hunters, and our partners to help ensure South Dakota remains the pheasant capital of the world.”   

The South Dakota Department of Tourism estimates pheasant hunting generates $223 million in retail economic impact annually and an additional $111 million in salaries annually. Those revenues are the result of 76,000 resident and 100,000 non-resident pheasant hunters purchasing licenses, fuel, food and lodging during the state’s three-month hunting season. The season’s opener is also acknowledged as the busiest weekend of the year at the Sioux Falls Regional Airport. In fact, the state estimates there are 4,500 jobs linked directly to the pheasant hunting industry and related tourism.  Plain and simple, pheasants are big business in South Dakota. 

Nomsen is a Clear Lake, Iowa native, where his father was the chief pheasant biologist for the Iowa Conservation Commission (now the Iowa Department of Natural Resources). Following his father’s conservation lead, Nomsen received a master’s in wildlife management from South Dakota State University. He has been with Pheasants Forever since 1992, where he began as PF's wildlife biologist for Minnesota. Nomsen has spent the last two decades as the organization's voice on Capitol Hill and one of the most respected and knowledgeable advocates in support of federal farm conservation programs; including the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). With extensive experience in wetlands conservation, Nomsen also worked with South Dakota’s Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit during the 1970s and has served on the North American Wetlands Conservation Council for the last two decades and under three different presidents. 

Warm water means anglers must switch to summer tactics

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 3, 2014 - 6:11 PM

Summerlike temperatures have turned spring fishing into summer fishing in just days

Water temperatures that were in the mid-50s have jumped to the low 70s in many areas,  including as far north as the Fergus Falls, Grand Rapids and Bemidji areas, DNR conservation and fisheries officials repoort.

That meaning anglers have had to switch from spring fishing tactics and locations to summer mode and locations.

Meanwhile, a boater in central Minnesota experienced a major bummer: Conservation officer Dan Starr of Onamia helped a motorist whose boat motor had been scraping on the tar for miles.

“The lower unit was worn down right to the gear case, and most of the prop was gone,’’ reported Starr.

Also, if you're heading out fishing soon, be prepared for bugs. The combination of rain and warmth has caused an explosion of mosquitoes that have harassed anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts in recent days.

New deer population goals set for southeast

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: May 29, 2014 - 2:58 PM

Deer densities in a large area of southeastern Minnesota will be increased, while densities in other southeast areas will remain the same or be reduced, the Department of Natural Resources announced Thursday.

The changes are the result of the agency's ongoing deer population goal-setting review. The new deer population goals are the result of a public process initiated late last fall that included public input before convening a citizen stakeholder advisory team.

“By managing for these new goals, the majority of permit areas should experience population increases,” said Leslie McInenly, big game program leader for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

DNR increased goal densities in deer permit areas 341, 342, 345, 347 and 348. Permit areas 343, 346 and 349 will maintain existing goal densities, as will Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, permit area 344.

Although deer density goals were not changed for permit areas 343, 346 and 349, populations in those areas already are above goal so management will continue to be designed to lower deer densities to goal in those areas.

“Deer densities in 343, the area that includes Rochester, will be managed to remain roughly the same,” McInenly said. “The special disease management zone in the Pine Island area will be eliminated and merged with permit areas 341 and 343, allowing deer numbers to recover from chronic wasting disease management efforts.”

DNR will allow hunters to harvest more deer in permit areas 346 and 349 to significantly reduce deer densities because of extremely high deer densities observed during aerial surveys this past winter.

Here's more from DNR news release:

With the exception of those two far southeastern permit areas, deer management to achieve goals in many permit areas will require conservative harvest strategies this coming fall that likely will include a one-deer bag limit. Harvest management will be designed to gradually move populations toward goals during the next few years.

“By seeking a consensus-based recommendation from a group of local citizens with diverse perspectives and experiences, the process was designed to result in sustainable, citizen-based goals that were publicly supported,” McInenly said. “We had a good deal of public interest and very dedicated volunteers.”

Southeast advisory team members were selected through an open nomination process and members were tasked with developing recommendations for new deer population goals after considering biological and social data.

Team members considered more than 4,000 responses to hunter and landowner surveys, comments from nearly 600 online or meeting questionnaires, public meetings and written communication to the DNR. They reviewed information related to deer populations, harvest trends, habitat, browsing impacts and public health and safety. Other factors associated with deer management also were considered.

After collecting public comment on team recommendations, the DNR approved eight of the nine team recommendations without revision. A slight revision to the team recommendation for permit area 342 was necessary to prevent a population increase of nearly 50 percent from the current level, which would have established a deer density that available habitat could not support.

“Only three percent of surveyed hunters desired such an increase and a number of team members suggested they would have preferred an intermediate level of increase,” McInenly said. “The revised density range still exceeds the level suggested by most survey respondents but better reflects desires identified from more recent public comment and advisory team discussion.”

More information on southeastern Minnesota’s new deer population goals and plans for goal setting in the remainder of the state during the next two years is available on the DNR’s deer management webpage at www.mndnr.gov/deer. (www.dnr.state.mn.us/mammals/deer/mgmt.html?tab=1#segoals)

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