Mild winter should boost Minnesota's wildlife

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 22, 2012 - 3:45 AM

With winter lacking its usual punch, Minnesota wildlife could emerge invigorated, good news for anglers and hunters.

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Minnesota’s walleyes should benefit from the unusually mild winter.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Turkeys are gobbling and strutting, trying to attract females, a month ahead of normal.

Pheasants, hammered by bad weather in recent years, are poised for a comeback.

Ice already has departed scores of lakes, prompting anglers to stow ice-fishing gear and ready their boats. And the state's deer herd, down recently, could be reinvigorated.

For Minnesota's wildlife, the unusually mild winter -- which officially ended Tuesday after days of record-busting high temperatures -- is a godsend. Deer, turkeys, pheasants and other critters have survived the most challenging time of year.

And that should have hunters and anglers smiling. But this is Minnesota, and the current heat could give way to snow in April and May. But for now, life in the wild is good. Here's a look at prospects for some key species:

Gobbling begins

Wild turkeys have adapted well to Minnesota's snow and cold, but the lack of both this winter clearly helped winter survival. And early-season turkey hunters could find cooperative toms because breeding likely will occur earlier than normal.

"Like a lot of wildlife, they key off day length and weather patterns," said Rick Horton, a Minnesota wildlife biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation. Breeding can be accelerated or delayed by the weather, and the warmth so far has jump-started the breeding season. But all rules aren't out the window: Length of daylight is critical to spur breeding, said Kurt Haroldson, a DNR wildlife scientist. "Egg production is determined primarily by day length," he said.

So while tom turkeys might be interested in breeding early, females might reject those offers. The peak hatch for Minnesota's turkeys normally occurs in early June. If hens are on nests early, as seems likely, that could benefit hunters seeking to bag a love-sick gobbler.

"Early-season hunters probably will see more action," Horton said.

Fish to spawn earlier

"The amount of daylight and water temperatures are triggering mechanisms for fish to spawn," said Henry Drewes, DNR regional fisheries manager in Bemidji.

So even if the warm stretch continues, fish will only spawn so early.

"If all the ice was gone tomorrow, we wouldn't see fish spawning," Drewes said, because the amount of daylight won't trigger spawning until later.

Walleye spawning usually beings in mid-April. Still, early ice-out and warming waters could tip the scales to an earlier spawn. "Everything could be seven to 10 days ahead of normal," Drewes said, if current weather patterns continue.

That could be a repeat of spring 2010, when some lakes set early ice-out records. And that would affect anglers.

"If anglers fish where they normally fish on the opener -- the mouths of rivers -- the fish may not be there," Drewes said. "At those traditional early opener places, the fish may have left and dispersed into lakes," he said.

There is a potential downside to the early spring. An early spawn would make newly hatched fish vulnerable to a cold snap.

"When spring comes, you want it to stay," Drewes said.

Deer herd boosted

Hunters have complained recently about a lack of deer, and the mild winter should be a shot-in-the-arm for whitetails, said Dennis Simon, DNR wildlife section chief. "There's the direct impact: Lower winter mortality."

Last year's fawns and older deer that might not have survived a normal winter probably did this year.

But there's more: "Does are in better condition and will have fawns that are larger and healthier," Simon said.

Deer born this spring should be in excellent condition, with a better chance of surviving, he said.

So hunters next fall should see more yearlings and more fawns, said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager in Grand Rapids.

"I can't remember a winter like this one," Lightfoot said. "From a deer's perspective, it was a nonevent. You couldn't ask for anything better."

All of this could boost deer numbers, which could affect antlerless quotas this fall, Simon said. Still, he said, "We intend to be fairly conservative [with antlerless permits]."

The mild winter also benefitted whitetails in the southwest, where the population has been down. There were virtually no deer depredation complaints from southwest farmers, because deer didn't have to seek food in farm yards.

Pheasants get a break

For Minnesota pheasants and pheasant hunters, the unprecedented mild winter comes at an opportune time: Last year, a brutal winter and cold, wet spring pummeled ringnecks, dropping their population to record-low levels.

"If the mild weather continues through spring and we stay dry and have a good nesting season, we should make great strides to recovery," Haroldson said. "I don't think we can recover all the way in one year, but this would be a giant step in the right direction."

Winter pheasant mortality likely was almost nonexistent, Haroldson said. Which means more hens survived to breed.

"It's the mildest winter I can recall," said Haroldson, who has been with the DNR for 25 years. "There was so little snow in most of southern Minnesota, the grass is still vertical. That's just bizarre. It still looks like November."

Peak pheasant hatch is the first week in June, and despite the early spring-like weather, Haroldson believes the prime nesting period will remain unchanged.

"I think day length has more influence [than temperature] on the nesting season," Haroldson said.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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