Walleyes, wolves and other wildlife: Year in review

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2013 - 9:21 PM

A frozen-over fishing opener stood out as odd news in a year of upticks, downturns.

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More duck hunters went afield in 2013 than the year before, continuing a a recent trend. We won’t know how hunters did this season until surveys are tallied next year.

Photo: DOUG SMITH • doug.smith@startribune.com,

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The year started cold and snowy, and it’s ending that way. In between, there was plenty of outdoor news in 2013. Here’s a look at a few issues that made headlines:

One for the record book

It was The Winter That Wouldn’t Die, and much of northern Minnesota was locked in ice when the fishing opener rolled around last May 11, fouling the event for untold thousands. The last time such a wide-ranging late ice-out occurred: 1950. At Lake Mille Lacs, 2 feet of ice was on the big lake when the season opened. “Sad, sad, sad,’’ said Greg Thomas, owner of Gregory’s Resort. All in all, it was an opener for the record books.

Lake Mille Lacs walleyes

A disconcerting drop in the walleye population on famed Lake Mille Lacs forced some tough medicine last year: The DNR imposed some of the most restricted fishing regulations ever. Anglers were allowed to keep only walleyes between 18 and 20 inches, or longer than 28 inches. The possession limit was reduced to two. Meanwhile, harvest in 2013 was down significantly, because of the tighter regs and late spring. There was some encouraging news in the fall: DNR researchers found good numbers of young-of-the-year walleyes, raising hope of a population rebound.

More zebra mussels

Invading zebra mussels continued to spread to some of Minnesota’s most popular lakes, an ominous development that has frustrated anglers, boaters, lakeshore owners and business owners. Among the lakes added to the dreaded infested waters list: Lake Winnibigoshish, the state’s fourth-largest lake. And Winnie’s waters flow into 13 other lakes or rivers. Zebra mussels also were found in the Whitefish Chain of Lakes near Brainerd, with 14 lakes covering 14,000 acres and 119 miles of shoreline.

Wolves, wolves, wolves

The controversy over how to manage Minnesota’s wolves continued to simmer in 2013, and there were some major developments. In May, the Minnesota Court of Appeals threw out a lawsuit challenging the state’s wolf hunting and trapping season. And in July, officials announced the results of the latest wolf population survey, which showed a 24 percent decline since the last survey in 2008. Officials estimated the population at 2,211, but the survey was done in midwinter before wolf pups were born. Officials estimated about 2,600 pups were born — about half likely survived until fall — and pronounced the population stable. Still, they cut the target harvest for the state’s second regulated wolf season to 220. As of Tuesday, 200 had been killed.

The future for pheasants

Dramatic loss of habitat and recent poor weather has hammered the pheasant population in Minnesota, South Dakota and other states, leaving conservationists and ringneck lovers wondering what the future holds. Minnesota’s population was off 29 percent; South Dakota’s was down 64 percent. So concerned were our western neighbors that they held a first-ever pheasant habitat summit earlier this month. The pheasant decline hasn’t gone unnoticed: 27,000 fewer licenses were sold in South Dakota, and 13,000 fewer in Minnesota. Many are concerned grassland habitat will continue to disappear, spelling continued trouble.

Looking ducky

After years of watching the number of duck hunters — and the duck harvest — decline, something else has happened. Bolstered by an earlier start to the duck season, and more liberal regulations, harvest has been up. The number of duck hunters is up, too. In 2012, the DNR counted 90,000 duck hunters for the first time in seven years. This year, the DNR has sold more than 93,000 state duck stamps, which doesn’t account for youth hunters, who don’t need stamps. That’s an encouraging shift for Minnesota wildlife officials, who watched duck hunter numbers plunge from 122,000 in 1999 to 73,000 in 2010. Despite the turnaround, long-term concerns remain over loss and degradation of habitat and health of duck populations. But at least there might be hunters around to fight that battle.

How many deer?

Minnesota deer hunters were hampered early by high winds, and with hunting nearly over, harvest likely will be down about 7 percent, which follows a 4 percent decline last year. Deer management always is controversial, and the DNR has started to re-evaluate statewide deer population goals, aiming to finish by 2017. In 2014, the DNR will review the deer herd in the southeast, where antler point restrictions imposed four years ago were left in place by the Legislature and DNR. A citizen advisory group is being formed. More at www.mndnr.gov/deer.

 

Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

  • related content

  • John Heroff of Stillwater tried his luck for walleyes, following the edge of a massive sheet of ice that still covered most of Lake Winnibigoshish on opening day last May. The last time spring weather arrived so late was 1950.

  • Minnesota’s second regulated wolf hunting and trapping season was held in 2013, but the issue of wolf management remains controversial. Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ORG XMIT: MIN2013122313260449

  • Zebra mussels continue to spread to Minnesota lakes. This clam encrusted with zebra mussels was found on the bottom of Lake Mille Lacs.

  • Stephanie Lohse, 14, of Lester Prairie was among pheasant hunters afield in 2013. Minnesota’s pheasant population and hunter numbers were down.

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