When the world changed in March and most fish and wildlife workers retreated to work from home, licensing center employees at the Department of Natural Resources reported to the office to keep issuing permits of all kinds.
They kept open the machinery that fed the story of the year in Minnesota's outdoors: an unprecedented embrace of fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, biking, boating and trail riding. To escape the constraints of the global coronavirus pandemic, people flocked to the state's lakes, rivers, woods, parks, trails, campgrounds and wilderness areas.
"It's so great that people are choosing to spend more time in the outdoors,'' DNR Fish and Wildlife Chief Dave Olfelt said. "We have an outdoors-oriented culture in Minnesota, and that circle must get bigger. We need everyone to be connected to it."
Lifted by the appeal of built-in social distancing amid nature, the DNR sold 100,000 more fishing licenses than it did in 2019 and issued twice as many state forest camping permits. The declining sport of duck hunting experienced a rebound that no one could have foreseen while all-terrain vehicle ridership surged to new levels. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, so many newcomers paddled their way into the wild that the U.S. Forest Service was forced to close an unusually high number of campsites where bears became accustomed to finding food.
In a normal year, 10 million people visit Minnesota's 75 state parks and recreation areas, including 1.1 million campers. In 2020, through November, visitation had soared by 51% at parks near the metro area. Statewide, the attendance blast was 23% above the level in 2019. Also through November, state trail use exploded by about 50%, according to the DNR.
State Parks and Trails Director Erika Rivers said the resources were magnets for people who "sought safe ways to get some exercise and the calming experiences of nature-based recreation.''
The uplifting trend of greater participation in everything from bird-watching to spring turkey hunting arrived in the face of COVID-19 setbacks. Minnesota's anglers and waterfowl hunters were blocked from entering Canada, fishing resorts in the Northwest Angle were nearly deserted by the closure, fundraising tanked for wildlife conservation groups like Pheasants Forever from the cancellation of banquets, DNR gave up on walleye stocking and other field work, overnight camping was initially shut down in state parks and conventions like the Minneapolis Boat Show and the Game Fair in Ramsey were ditched.
More recently, the deadly disease outbreak changed the way Minnesota deer hunters gathered for the annual harvest. Many who normally convened with family and friends in tradition-laden camps retrenched from their far-flung deer shacks to abide by social distancing requirements.
As a result, deer hunters bucked the trend of increased participation in 2020 by not buying more hunting licenses than they did the year before. The firearms season got off to a surprisingly slow start. Temperatures were unseasonably high and the wind was blowing.
"I was expecting the harvest on that weekend to be 15 percent higher than it was a year ago,'' DNR Big Game Program Supervisor Barb Keller said. "Instead, it was 14 percent lower.''
But hunters stayed with it and closed the gap. By the end of last week, the state's cumulative deer harvest stood at 192,679 whitetails — 7% more than a year ago. Keller said the rally included solid contributions from bow hunters and muzzleloader shooters. In the latter category, DNR sold 29% more hunting licenses than it did a year ago.
"My initial take is that we seemed to have more diversification on participating," Keller said.
On the downside, COVID-19 prompted DNR to halt mandatory disease testing of deer in areas where the agency is trying to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease (CWD). A year ago on the opening weekend of the firearms season, many of the testing sites became congested with hunters and DNR staff. To avoid a repeat of the crowding, DNR made CWD testing voluntary this year by creating sites for hunters to drop off deer heads. It proved far less effective for gathering data.
Also new to Minnesota deer hunting in 2020 was the withdrawal of local butcher shops from wild game processing. The change left many hunters cutting and packaging their own venison. The shortage was another unforeseen complication of COVID-19 because many meat shops were overwhelmed by local beef and pork orders triggered by springtime shutdowns of large meatpacking plants in the Midwest.
But throughout the hunting world, people marveled at a reversal of sagging participation. Vista Outdoors, owner of Federal Cartridge in Anoka and Remington Ammunition, reported a 30% increase in sales through the end of September. The spike in demand wiped out a lot of inventory and created shortages of hunting ammo at sporting goods stores in the Twin Cities metro area and beyond.
In Minnesota, the DNR sold 14.5% more small game licenses than it did in 2019, with notable gains in the issuance of waterfowl stamps. A strong pheasant hatch and good abundance of ruffed grouse helped make for a memorable fall.
Joe Albert, a spokesman for the DNR's enforcement division, said the rise in outdoor activity coincided with 27 fatalities associated with ATVs and dirt bikes. "As far as I can see, that's a record high and corresponds to very high numbers of people out on the trails this year," Albert said.
As of Nov. 30, 16 people also had died this year in Minnesota boating accidents. Albert said the toll was high but down from levels seen in 2015 and 2016.
Olfelt, the DNR fish and game chief, said the growth of fishing easily surpassed renewed interest in hunting. Among the eye-popping statistics? The number of trout anglers grew by 27% to 122,000 and the DNR's voluntary program asking walleye anglers to purchase a $5 habitat stamp attracted 32,000 buyers, nearly a 50% increase from 2019. In addition, fishing attracted thousands more teenagers in 2020.
Olfelt said stakeholders throughout the outdoors world are now discussing how to take advantage of the phenomena. "How do we keep all these people engaged, right?" he said.
Layered in those talks will be issues of racial equity sparked by the killing of George Floyd.
"We need to be talking more directly to different groups of people,'' Olfelt said. "We need to identify barriers and remove them.''