Breeding mallard numbers down, other species up from last year
Minnesota’s breeding mallard population counts are down from last year while other species saw increases, according to the results of the annual Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spring waterfowl surveys.
This year’s mallard breeding population was estimated at 206,000, which is 20 percent below last year’s estimate of 257,000 breeding mallards, 17 percent below the recent 10-year average and 10 percent above the long-term average measured since 1968.
The blue-winged teal population is 169,000 this year, 66 percent above the 2014 estimate of 102,000, but the population remains 21 percent below the long-term average of 212,000 blue-winged teal.
The combined populations of other ducks, such as ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads was 149,000, which is 29 percent higher than last year and 16 percent below the long-term average.
The estimate of total duck abundance (excluding scaup) was 524,000, similar to last year’s estimate of 474,000 ducks.
The estimated number of wetlands was 220,000, down 36 percent from last year, and 13 percent below the long-term average. Wetland numbers can vary greatly based on annual precipitation.
“We generally expect to see lower duck numbers during dry years. We did see lower mallard numbers this year, but blue-winged teal and other duck numbers were improved from last year,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. “In addition to our counts, the continental waterfowl population estimates will be released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer and they provide an indicator of what hunters can 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.
A DNR waterfowl biologist and pilot count all waterfowl and wetlands along established survey routes by flying low-level aerial surveys from a fixed-wing plane. The survey is timed to begin in early May to coincide with peak nesting activity of mallards. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides ground crews who also count waterfowl along some of the same survey routes. These data are then used to correct for birds not seen by the aerial crew.
This year’s Canada goose population was estimated at 250,000 geese, which was similar to last year’s estimate of 244,000 geese. This doesn’t include an additional estimated 17,500 breeding Canada geese in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
“The number of Canada geese in Minnesota remains high but the population has been very stable for many years. With the early spring this year, we should see a good hatch of goslings as well,” Cordts said.
The number of breeding Canada geese in the state is estimated via a helicopter survey of nesting Canada geese in April. The survey, which includes most of the state except for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, counts Canada geese on randomly selected plots located in prairie, transition and forested areas.
The DNR will announce this fall’s waterfowl hunting regulations later this summer. The Minnesota waterfowl report is at www.mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
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DNR approves new deer population goals
New deer population goals have been approved by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for large portions of northeastern, north-central and east-central Minnesota, covering 40 of 128 deer permit areas in the state.
“These new goals will result in management to increase deer numbers in relation to last year’s levels in most of the 40 permit areas,” said Steve Merchant, wildlife populations manager. “The new goals largely reflect the desires shared by stakeholders who participated in the deer goal setting process and generally reflect the public feedback we’ve heard during the past few years.”
As a result of this process, 85 percent of the 40 areas will be managed for populations higher than those experienced in 2014; the remaining will see no change.
Comparison to former goals
Of the 40 deer permit areas with new goals, 26 will be managed for deer densities higher than those established by the previous goals; eight will be managed at similar densities to former goals; and six will be managed for densities below former goals. More information about the goals for each deer permit area can be found at www.mndnr.gov/deer.
With respect to the four advisory team recommendations not accepted by the DNR, the agency chose more moderate population increases to better reflect the preferences suggested by hunter and landowner survey data and public input; allow more deer to be harvested; and minimize anticipated deer damage to agricultural lands and forest habitat.
Goals are intended to be in place for three to five years. The DNR shortened the goal timeframe to allow more frequent opportunities to revisit and adjust goals with input from stakeholders.
This is the third year the DNR has worked with citizens and stakeholders to re-assess and re-establish deer population goals in portions of the state. Goals for southwestern and portions of northern Minnesota were set in 2012. Goals for southeastern Minnesota were set last year.
DNR will postpone goal setting in the remaining 54 deer permit areas scheduled for consideration in 2016 until the current legislative audit of Minnesota’s deer population management program is complete.
More information about deer goal setting can be found at www.mndnr.gov/deer.
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DNR studies muskie to improve fishing for anglers
Researchers carefully hoist a huge muskellunge onto a boat. They record its measurements, identify the sex of the fish, scan an electronic tag implanted in the muskie and return it to the lake where, one day, it could take an angler’s lure and provide a long-remembered thrill.
Collecting information and studying muskie populations allows the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to make well-informed decisions about how to stock muskie and manage harvest.
“As anglers head into the muskie season that began June 6, they are enjoying opportunities that came about largely due to research-based management,” said Don Pereira, fisheries section chief. “Better information can lead to better fishing in a state that’s already a renowned muskie fishing destination.”
The DNR studies muskie in a variety of ways, including looking into everything from muskie ancestry using DNA analysis to how well muskie grow and survive once they’re stocked in certain southern Minnesota lakes. The research builds on past work that identified how to best capture and rear a large-growing native strain of muskie, stock this strain into appropriate waters, and manage the harvest.
“This large-growing strain is one reason muskie anglers are able to catch fish in the 50-plus inch trophy range,” Pereira said. “There are enough of these fish in the population that many anglers asked for the change to a 54-inch minimum length on muskie in most waters of the state, which is in effect this year.”
Along with a growing interest in muskie fishing, research taking place around the state aims to fine-tune muskie management.
Walker area fisheries: Using DNA to study muskie ancestry
With the help of DNA analysis, researchers can trace the ancestry of individual fish, including muskie. The work has real-world management implications.
“It’s a pretty cool concept. We’re starting to do more of it now on special projects around the state,” said Doug Schultz, Walker area fisheries supervisor.
For one study, Walker area fisheries teamed up with Loren Miller, a fisheries research geneticist, as well as anglers who were shown how to collect muskie scale samples for DNA analysis.
The study’s central question: In Baby and Man lakes in the Walker area, stocking of the less desirable Shoepack Lake strain of muskie ended in the 1970s. Now, what is the residual effect of Shoepack strain muskie on the current muskie population in these two lakes?
“Strain” in fish is similar to heritage in humans: Fish from a geographic location of origin tend to have similar physical characteristics that may differ from those of other locations. From the 1950s to the early 1980s, muskie from Shoepack Lake were reared and stocked in several Minnesota lakes, even in lakes where a native muskie population already existed.
It was later seen that the Shoepack strain grew slower and reached smaller maximum sizes than the Mississippi strain, which are native populations connected to the upper Mississippi River drainage system, including Leech Lake. The use of the Shoepack strain ended in favor of the faster growing and larger Leech Lake-Mississippi strain.
On Baby and Man lakes, the study found that Shoepack ancestry declined to only nine percent, down from 13 percent in 1995. Yet, historical Shoepack strain stockings are still having an impact on size potential of some fish in today’s muskie populations.
“This study could set the stage for future muskie management decisions on lakes with residual Shoepack ancestry,” Schultz said. “A study using DNA adds a new level of certainty about the effects of past stocking. That helps as we take multiple factors into account when making management decisions aimed at improving opportunities for anglers.”
Montrose area fisheries: Tagging and recapturing muskie after new stocking
Muskies were first stocked in 2011 in the Sauk River Chain of Lakes, giving anglers in the St. Cloud area a chance to fish for muskies close to home.
For Montrose area fisheries staff, the stocking offers a rare chance to track the growth of a new fish population using electronic tags.
“It’s a new fish to the system. We don’t really know what the growth potential is out there. It will be neat to find out,” said Joe Stewig, Montrose area fisheries supervisor. “Some of these fish will be marked, and we will then be able to track their growth throughout their lives.”
Beginning in 2013, Montrose area staff started implanting electronic tags into muskies, work paid for through hunting and fishing license dollars and with financial help from the Hugh C. Becker Foundation through the St. Cloud chapter of Muskies Inc. After fish are tagged, the goal is to recapture some of these fish during fall electrofishing, when crews look specifically for these stocked muskies.
“With continued funding, we’ll be able to use these tags to monitor the growth of this newly established muskie population,” Stewig said. “Using this method goes above and beyond the standard lake survey.”
West metro fisheries: Tagging muskie to evaluate stocking efforts
To study the effectiveness of muskie stocking in three Twin Cities metro area lakes, the DNR’s west metro fisheries staff is working on a muskie tagging project in partnership with the Muskies, Inc. Twin Cities Chapter and Hugh C. Becker Foundation.
The study taking place on Lake Minnetonka, Bald Eagle Lake and White Bear Lake measures the survival numbers of year-old muskie, called yearlings, and smaller muskie less than a year old, called fingerlings.
“All three lakes have high northern pike populations. So we normally don’t stock muskie in the face of that kind of competition,” said Daryl Ellison, west metro area fisheries manager. “But there’s an interest in it because they’re metro lakes.”
The study results will help evaluate the DNR’s standard stocking ratio of one yearling per three fingerlings – important knowledge because yearlings cost more to stock than fingerlings.
“Initial results seem to support the 3:1 ratio, but more study is needed,” Ellison said. “The study was showing some positive results for fingerlings in Lake Minnetonka.”
Windom area fisheries: Studying Fox Lake muskellunge
Fox Lake is Minnesota’s southernmost muskie lake, and was first stocked with muskie in 1999. Years later, electronic tags began informing an ongoing study on muskie in that lake.
Each spring from 2011 to 2013, Windom fisheries staff counted, measured and weighed muskie captured with nets. They also implanted muskie with electronic tags, and recorded information about the growth of individual fish already implanted with a tag from a previous spring.
Starting in 2012, muskie fingerlings have received electronic tags before they are stocked into the lake. To date, more than 1,200 muskellunge of varying sizes have been tagged in Fox Lake.
“Through this study on Fox Lake, we’ll gain pertinent information on population abundance, growth and longevity of muskie,” said Nate Hodgins, Windom area fisheries assistant supervisor. “It will give us a good picture of muskie populations in similar size and type lakes.”
Windom fisheries plans to use the data to help evaluate how Fox and perhaps other lakes are stocked in smaller, southern Minnesota lakes in the future. They will be netting muskie and updating Fox Lake population numbers every two years starting in 2015.
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