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.

Iowa officials: Sunfish found in Mississippi River likely a rare one

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: July 22, 2014 - 5:16 PM

Officials in Iowa recently found a fish species in the Mississippi River that possibly hasn't been seen there in more than 80 years.

State and national scientists are working to identify a fish, believed to be a longear sunfish.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources fisheries staff collecting fish for a fishing clinic in early July captured the fish.

“If this proves to be a longear sunfish it will be the first time since 1932 the species has been positively identified in Iowa,” said DNR fisheries technician Adam Thiese, who collected the fish.

 “How it got here and where it came from remains to be determined. For those that work in the fisheries field, both state and nationally, anytime an uncommon species can be documented, it’s an exciting discovery.”

Leading national ichthyologists believe it is a longear sunfish. A fin clip has been collected to verify. Once listed as common in bayous around Muscatine, they have been extirpated from the state for more than eight decades.

Longear sunfish are present in some Minnesota lakes.

Officials don't know how the fish got there, but one theory is it may have been the result of flooding. The fish was from a pond that had been inundated with floodwater from the Mississippi.

Historically, the longear sunfish was primarily found in backwaters, many of which no longer exist.

Continental duck population up 8 percent, to record high

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: July 4, 2014 - 10:42 AM

Continental duck populations have increased over last year to record levels, and
their habitat conditions have improved, according to a U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service report released Wednesday.

The preliminary estimate for the total duck population is 49.2 million
birds, an 8 percent increase over last year’s estimate of 45.6 million
birds, and 43 percent above the long-term average.

It's also the highest population recorded during the annual surveys.

“This spring, as has been the case for the past several years, saw abundant moisture across much of North America's most important duck breeding areas,” said DU Chief Biologist Scott Yaich.

“That bodes well for duck breeding success this summer and, we hope, for hunting this fall. But we remain concerned with the continuing and escalating loss of nesting habitat in these areas.''

Added Yaich: "Because ducks need water, wetlands to hold the water and upland habitats to successfully raise their young, the ongoing loss of grasslands and wetlands across the Prairie Pothole Region will increasingly impact the number of ducks in the fall flight in the long-term.”

Meanwhile, the report also provides abundance estimates for individual duck species,
including mallard, blue-winged teal, northern pintail, American wigeon,
lesser and greater scaup, and canvasback, all of which are similar to or
slightly above last year’s totals. Most species’ populations, such as
mallard and blue-winged teal, remain significantly above the long-term
average, while others, including scaup and pintail are still below.

Here are some details:

 * Estimated mallard abundance is 10.9 million birds, similar to last
   year’s estimate of 10.4 million birds and 42% above the long-term average.

  * Blue-winged teal estimated abundance is 8.5 million, which is 10%
   above the 2013 estimate of 7.7 million, and 75% above the long-term average.

   * The northern pintail estimate of 3.2 million was similar to last
   year’s estimate of 3.3 million, and remains 20% below the long-term average.

   * American wigeon were 18% above the 2013 estimate and 20% above the
   long-term average.

   * The combined (lesser and greater) scaup estimate of 4.6 million was
   similar to 2013 and 8% below the long-term average of 5 million.   The
   canvasback estimate of 685 thousand was slightly lower than the 2013
   estimate of 787 thousand, but was 18% above the long-term average.

The annual duck survey encompasses more than 2 million square miles of waterfowl habitat across Alaska, north-central and northeastern U.S. states, and south-central, eastern and northern Canada. The survey area doesn't include Minnesota.

Here's more from Fish and Wildlife Service news release:

Habitat conditions assessed during the survey were mostly improved or
similar to last year as a result of average to above-average annual
precipitation. The total pond estimate (prairie Canada and U.S. combined)
was 7.2 million ponds, 40 percent above the long-term average.  The
majority of Canadian prairies had below to well below average winter
temperatures and average precipitation. Southern Manitoba benefitted from
last year’s higher summer and fall precipitation, whereas southern
Saskatchewan and most of Alberta were aided by higher spring 2014
precipitation.  In the U.S. prairies, habitat conditions improved in the
western Dakotas and Montana from 2013, but remained similar in the eastern

The annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey guides the
Service’s waterfowl conservation programs under authority of the 1918
Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Waterfowl population surveys and monitoring
programs are critical components of successful waterfowl management, and a
reflection of the Service’s commitment to generating high quality
scientific data to inform conservation planning.

For more information about the surveyed areas, the survey methodology and
the estimates, the " Trends Report in Duck Breeding Populations, 1955-2014" can
be downloaded from the Service’s website at
Visit for pilot
biologists’ flight blogs.

Minnesota's mallard, teal populations down; ruffed grouse up

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 30, 2014 - 12:28 PM



Well, it's not great news for waterfowl hunters, but it's better news for ruffed grouse hunters.

 Minnesota's breeding mallard and blue-winged teal populations are down. The Canada goose population is stable.

Meanwhile, the state's ruffed grouse spring drumming counts were significantly higher than last year across most of the bird’s range, which was surprising.

“Ruffed grouse drums increased 34 percent from the previous year, with the increase happening in the northern part of the state,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “This may signal the start of an upswing in the grouse cycle that since 2009 has been in the declining phase.”

Here's more from DNR news releases:

Minnesota’s breeding mallard population counts are down slightly from last year while other species saw higher declines, according to the results of the annual Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spring waterfowl surveys.

This year’s mallard breeding population was estimated at 257,000, which is 12 percent below last year’s estimate of 293,000 breeding mallards, 1 percent below the recent 10-year average and 13 percent above the long-term average.

The blue-winged teal population is 102,000 this year compared with 144,000 in 2013 and remains 53 percent below the long-term average of 215,000 blue-winged teal.  

The combined populations of other ducks, such as ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads was 116,000, which is 53 percent lower than last year and 35 percent below the long-term average.

The estimated number of wetlands was 343,000, up 33 percent from last year, and 28 percent above the long-term average.

“While we’re seeing declines in this year’s counts, the survey results can be affected by weather and visibility of waterfowl from aircraft,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. “Continental waterfowl population estimates will be released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer and may provide a better indicator of what hunters could expect this fall.”

The same waterfowl survey has been conducted each year since 1968 to provide an annual index of breeding duck abundance. The survey covers 40 percent of the state that includes much of the best remaining duck breeding habitat in Minnesota.


This year’s Canada goose population was estimated at 244,000 geese, which was similar to last year’s estimate of 250,000 geese. This does not include an additional estimated 17,500 breeding Canada geese in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

“Although this year’s population estimate is similar to last year’s estimate, goose production, or the number of goslings that hatch, will be better than last year,” Cordts said. “This year’s colder than normal temperatures delayed some goose nesting, particularly in the northern portions of the state.”


Minnesota’s ruffed grouse spring drumming counts increased 34 percent from last year, which may signal the start of an upswing in the grouse cycle, according to a DNR survey.

The increase is consistent with changes typical of the 10-year grouse cycle. The most recent peak in drum counts occurred in 2009. The cycle is less pronounced in the more southern regions of the state, near the edge of the ruffed grouse range.

Compared to last year’s survey, 2014 survey results for ruffed grouse indicated increases in the northeast survey region, which is the core of grouse range in Minnesota, from 0.9 drums per stop in 2013 to 1.3 in 2014. Drumming counts in the northwest increased from 0.7 drums per stop in 2013 to 1.2 in 2014. Drumming counts did not increase in the central hardwoods or southeast, with an average of 0.8 and 0.3 drums per stop, respectively.

Ruffed grouse populations, which tend to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle, are surveyed by counting the number of male ruffed grouse heard drumming on established routes throughout the state’s forested regions. This year observers recorded 1.1 drums per stop statewide. The averages during 2012 and 2013 were 1.0 and 0.9, 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.

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.

Minnesota frequently is the nation’s top ruffed grouse producer. On average, 115,000 hunters harvest 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota each year, also making it the state's most popular game bird. During the peak years of 1971 and 1989, hunters harvested more than 1 million ruffed grouse. Michigan and Wisconsin, which frequently field more hunters than Minnesota, round out the top three states in ruffed grouse harvest.

One reason for Minnesota’s status as a top grouse producer is an abundance of aspen and other ruffed grouse habitat, much of it located on county, state and national forests, where public hunting is allowed. An estimated 11.5 million of the state's 16.3 million acres of forest are grouse habitat.

For the past 65 years, DNR biologists have monitored ruffed grouse populations. This year, DNR staff and cooperators from 11 organizations surveyed 121 routes across the state.


Worthington conservation officer was up to his neck in water rescues

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 27, 2014 - 3:56 PM



A flooded road and wildlife management area in Murray County in southwestern Minnesota. DNR photo.

Conservation officer Gary Nordseth of Worthington patrols an area of southwestern Minnesota that usually is a sea of corn and soybeans.

Game and fish violations are the norm, not water rescues.

But torrential rains last week turned that pastoral setting into floodwaters that threatened the lives of four people caught in the flash floods.

Nordseth helped in the successful rescue of all four, launching his 16-foot Department of Natural Resources boat on a flooded Interstate 90 and in what had been a serene pasture.

"A father and son had gone to get their cattle to higher ground, and high water in the Rock River bottoms swept them up,'' Nordseth said. "They clung to a tree for four hours.''

Nordseth and other conservation officers launched the boat in the fast current and plucked them from the tree.

The area normally is a pasture. "Three days later the cattle were grazing there again,'' Nordseth said.

Nordseth also was involved in the rescue of a Minnesota state trooper who had tried to save a motorist who drove into floodwaters that flowed over Interstate 90. The officer pulled the woman from her car, but then became stranded as the current raged.

Both the officer, Brian Beuning, and the 21-year-old Anoka woman, Julisa Jones, were stuck in the raging current.

"We launched a boat on I-90, but couldn't get close enough to them without hitting them, the water was so violent,'' Nordseth reported. "There were 3 to 4 foot rollers."

So they took the boat downstream, in case the trooper and motorist were swept away by the current. Firefighters eventually  tied a rope to a semitrailer truck and formed a human chain to rescue the trooper and motorist.

Nordseth said he them boated across a flooded corn field to get his boat close to a road, then called a tow truck to pull the craft into a ditch, where it was winched onto a trailer.

"I've never seen anything like it,'' Nordseth said of the flooding. He patrolled that stretch of I-90 for 20 years as a trooper before joining the DNR.

"Thankfully, everyone escaped with their life.''

Blue-green algae, a killer for dogs, is beginning to show up in Minnesota

Posted by: Doug Smith Updated: June 26, 2014 - 11:34 AM

Blue-green algae is a killer for dogs, and the recent warm weather is spurring algae growth in Minnesota.

A dog died last weekend after swimming in a Sherburne County lake that had developed areas of heavy algae growth, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reported.

 Officials suspect blue-green algae killed the dog and advised pet owners to check water conditions when dogs are playing in lakes or slow-flowing streams.

Here is more from a MPCA news release:  

Last weekend, Brock Tatge and his family, who live on Prairie Lake in Sherburne County, were enjoying a beautiful Sunday on the lake when their dog, Copper, suddenly became very ill. Copper had been fetching his tennis ball from the lake, one of his favorite games.

“We noticed that Copper went on shore, began vomiting and panting very hard, and just looked very sick,” Tatge said.  “I carried him to my truck and brought him to the vet’s office.” Sadly, Copper’s condition deteriorated and he died at the veterinarian’s office.  While the cause of Copper’s illness has not been confirmed, the veterinarian who examined him believed that he became ill after ingesting toxins from blue-green algae.

Blue-green algae “blooms” have a thick, cloudy appearance that can look like green paint, pea soup, or floating mats of scum. Some, but not all, species of blue-green algae contain potent toxins that can be deadly to dogs, livestock, and other animals within hours of contact.

In this case, though most of the visible algae on Prairie Lake was not blue-green algae, MPCA staff found some blue-green algae mixed in with the more benign species.

If possible, dog owners should keep their pets away from algae-laden water entirely. If animals do enter water with heavy algae growth, they should be hosed off right away, before they have a chance to lick themselves clean. Animals become ill when they ingest the toxins, so preventing them from drinking affected water or licking toxins from their coat is key to preventing illness.

If someone is concerned that their pet has been exposed to harmful blue-green algae, they should take the animal to a veterinarian immediately.

Blue-green algae blooms can occur anytime during the summer, though they are normally associated with warm weather and low rainfall.  Algae are a natural part of the ecosystem, but under certain conditions, algae populations can “bloom” with dramatic growth. Most blue-green algae are not toxic, but there is no way to visually identify whether a particular bloom contains toxins that are harmful to people or animals.

Algal blooms occur when lakes develop high levels of nutrients such as phosphorus. “This year’s unusually heavy rainfall has carried tremendous amounts of nutrients into Minnesota lakes,” said MPCA scientist Steve Heiskary. “If the rain slows down and we move into a period of hot, dry summer weather, we could see an exceptional number of algal blooms across the state in the coming weeks, even in lakes that do not normally experience them.”

The best way to prevent algal blooms over the long term is to reduce the amount of nutrients that run off into lakes from fertilizers and organic materials like leaves and yard waste. Once a bloom has developed, there is no way to correct it. Blooms often come and go quickly, so the best option is to stay away from the water until rainfall, wind shifts, or cooler temperatures disrupt the algae’s growth.

If humans are exposed to toxic blue-green algae, they can experience skin irritation, nausea, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. People should never swim in water if they suspect a blue-green algae bloom.  Human deaths from exposure to blue-green algae are extremely rare, since the unpleasant odor and appearance of a blue-green algal bloom tend to keep people out of the water.

More information on harmful blue-green algae can be found at


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