2012 duck kill highest since ’03

St. Paul — Small-game hunters largely enjoyed a strong year in 2012, according to results of a small-game hunter survey the DNR released last week.

By almost all counts, 2012 was a better year than 2011.

The number of small-game hunting licenses sold – 295,198 – was up by about 4,500, and about where it’s been for the past decade. Pheasant harvest, too, was up, and the number of hunters targeting roosters and waterfowl increased, too.

But the duck harvest was perhaps most notable. Hunters killed 834,950 ducks, compared with 730,370 in 2011. It marked the highest harvest since 2003.

“Overall, I think it’s really good news,” said Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.

The state harvest estimates are similar to federal estimates, which also break harvest out by species. Much of the increase was in the harvest of wood ducks and blue-winged teal, which are early migrants but have been more readily available to hunters thanks to early openers in 2011 and 2012.

In addition to opening the season earlier, the DNR made a number of other changes aimed at providing more opportunities.

But as it relates to the increased harvest, “I’d pin it right to the early opener,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.

The DNR last year sold 90,052 duck stamps, which was the highest since 2008. There were an estimated 90,400 duck hunters last year, which was up from 83,450 in 2011 and the highest number since 2005.

Providing additional hunting opportunities for ducks, including increasing bag limits for hen mallards and wood ducks, is a “risk and reward,” Nylin said. “If you’re too cautious, are you driving people away? That’s the million-dollar question. If the populations can sustain it, why wouldn’t we put more opportunity out there?”

Nylin, though, said MWA remains concerned about wood ducks, given “there’s not a great deal of data on them.”

Ruffed grouse

The number of ruffed grouse killed every fall, and the number of hunters who target them, tend to follow the birds’ 10-year population cycle. But that hasn’t held true during the current cycle, which officials believe has generally been headed down since about 2009.

In 2012, an estimated 97,190 hunters targeted ruffed grouse. That was up from 93,480 in 2011, and the highest number since 2001. The ruffed grouse kill fell from 401,280 in 2011 to 355,130 in 2012.

One explanation for why hunter numbers and harvest seem off track with the cycle is there’s a core group of hunters who hunt grouse no matter what.

“The numbers go up some, but not as dramatically as they did in the past,” said Ted Dick, DNR area wildlife manager in Cambridge, and the agency’s former grouse coordinator. “We used to tell people you could count on a million-bird harvest in those high years, but it depends on the number of hunters. In the years when the harvest got high, we had (thousands) more hunters.

“The habitat is still there and the grouse are still there,” he added. “The number harvested by a typical hunter stays close to the good old days, but we just don’t get the same number of hunters out there.”

Pheasants

Hunters responded last year to an increase in the state’s pheasant population index. The DNR sold 90,541 pheasant stamps, up from 86,868 in 2011. Still, 2011 and 2012 mark the only two years since 2002 that stamp sales have been below 100,000.

There were an estimated 84,270 pheasant hunters last year, compared with 77,640 in 2011. Last year’s harvest estimate was 264,310 birds, compared with 204,440 in 2011.

Nicole Davros, the upland game project leader at the DNR research office in Madelia, said she heard reports that dry, hot, and still conditions on opening weekend made it tough for dogs to scent birds.

The tough conditions early in the season, when the bulk of the harvest takes place, likely played a role in hunters falling short of the DNR’s pre-season estimate that hunters would kill 291,000 birds, she said.

“Still, it was good to see the harvest up,” Davros said.

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