Minnesota's outdoor enthusiasts had much to give thanks for in 2007: Walleyes, pheasants, deer and wild turkeys were plentiful. Ruffed grouse and ducks? Not so much.
The weather -- both mild and severe -- had a major impact on outdoor recreation and wildlife again. Yes, 2007 was a year to remember. But don't nod off in 2008. This year could be a watershed for conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts.
Here's a look back at some key issues of 2007, and a look ahead at what's in store for 2008:
CONSERVATION: IS '08 THE YEAR?
It didn't quite happen last year, but it well could in 2008: After years of debate, a bill calling for dedicating a portion of the state sales tax to natural resources is expected to pass the Legislature in 2008 and be placed on the November ballot. Voters then would decide whether to raise the state sales tax by 3/8ths of 1 percent, which would produce about $300 million annually for fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, parks, trails and the arts.
That's big bucks that have been lacking over the years. Spending for natural resources is at a 30-year low. That's why no single issue could impact Minnesota's outdoors more. Key questions: Will voters approve it? And if so, who will control the spending of those dollars?
FARM BILL AND CRP
The federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the most successful conservation programs in history and a boon to wildlife, especially pheasants and ducks. But the program was set to expire in 2007, and tens of thousands of acres of grasslands in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas have been converted back to cropland because of rising commodity prices. A new five-year farm bill approved by the Senate last month reauthorized CRP at its current level of 39.2 million acres. The questions: Will the program be financially attractive enough for farmers? Or will the bill's commodity payments entice landowners to plow up more grasslands? The House and Senate must reconcile differences in their bills, but passage is expected in 2008.
WEATHER BOOSTS WILDLIFE
The weather made news in 2007. That's because it has a critical impact on wildlife and outdoor recreation. Another mild winter and spring in 2007 helped boost deer and pheasant numbers, spurring some of the best hunting for those species in ages. But a midsummer deluge also flooded the southeast, severely damaging trout streams and Whitewater State Park. We'll know more about the long-term stream damage this year. Meanwhile, significant snowfall last month finally put smiles on the faces of skiers and snowmobilers -- but left many Minnesota lakes slush-covered, hindering winter ice anglers. You win some, you lose some.
WALLEYES: ARE FOUR ENOUGH?
The Department of Natural Resources is proposing a statewide four-walleye limit, down from six. The reasoning: It will simplify things for anglers and conservation officers. That's because many lakes have different limits and restrictions, including some with four-walleye limits. But would a bag-limit reduction have any impact on the walleye fishery? And will anglers -- or politicians -- accept it? Stay tuned.
LEECH, MILLE LACS FISHERIES
Two remarkable but true fish tales were spun on Leech and Mille Lacs lakes. After several years of poor walleye fishing, and much angst by anglers and local businesses, walleyes rebounded big-time in Leech Lake in 2007. Aggressive walleye fry stocking and a reduction in the fish-eating cormorant population around the lake were credited with the turnaround. The outlook for 2008: excellent. Meanwhile, walleye fishing was gangbusters on Mille Lacs early last season, but the walleye population appeared to plummet mysteriously by fall. Officials are looking at a variety of factors, but whatever the cause, tighter regulations on the state's most popular walleye lake could be coming.
DEER: ANOTHER BIG HARVEST
For deer hunters, these are heady times. In 2007, hunters likely killed around 260,000 whitetails (the final tally isn't in yet), which would be among the top five harvests ever. Mild winters, good habitat and plenty of food have increased deer numbers. The DNR continues to offer liberal hunting regulations to try to reduce populations in some areas. But hunters have complained about complicated regulations, and the agency might try to simplify things in 2008. And hunters are warily watching to see if deer get whacked by a severe winter for the first time in years.
PHEASANTS: BOOM TIME
It probably won't get any better than this in Minnesota. Pheasant hunters were expected to bag another half-million birds for the third consecutive year -- something they haven't done in more than 40 years. Six consecutive mild winters have been the catalyst. But rooster boosters are holding their collective breaths now: Snow covers the pheasant range, both here and in Iowa and South Dakota, exposing ringnecks to predators and leaving them vulnerable to a winter storm.
OTHER QUESTIONS FOR 2008
• Will ruffed grouse populations rebound? Their numbers were supposed to be climbing, but they apparently suffered an unexplained setback last year.
• What's the future for ducks and duck hunters? It was hard to assess the 2007 duck season; the opener appeared to be pretty good, but reports were mixed during the season. Will the DNR and conservationists be able to boost duck habitat and stem the loss of wetlands?
• Is a new state park on Lake Vermilion in the cards? The DNR wants to buy 2,500 acres there from U.S. Steel Corp., but the major question is whether the state can come up with the big bucks.
• Will the DNR finally launch a hunter walk-in program, where private landowners are paid to provide public access? It's been debated for years, but it's expected to be on the agenda in 2008.
• Will we see more lead-shot restrictions for upland bird hunters in 2008? An 11-member citizens group in 2006 said more restrictions are inevitable. The issue will be discussed at the DNR's annual "roundtable" meeting this weekend in St. Cloud with stakeholders.
• Will VHS disease (viral hemorrhagic septicemia) -- a fatal fish virus that has caused large fish kills on the Great Lakes -- spread to Minnesota in 2008? Officials believe it's just a matter of time before it arrives.