The top 10 Minnesota outdoor stories of 2015

Early this week, I wrote a 2,000-word review of the top news stories from each week of Outdoor News in 2015. Editor Joe Albert then condensed them into a top 10 list you’ll see on the front of this week’s print edition of the newspaper. Here are my quick thoughts on those top 10 stories. We’ll start at No. 10 and work our way to the top story of the year.

10. Late ice formation. We still have marginal ice fishing conditions in the metro area on many lakes, and open water exists farther south. The good news is that the traditional heart of walleye country from central Minnesota to the Canada border is becoming fishable fast. Blame climate change or El Niño, but we probably lost a solid third of the 2015-16 hard-water angling season thanks to lingering open water. Hey, the fish should be hungry when I head to Lake of the Woods in mid-January!

9. Hautman brothers trifecta. We’re used to seeing either Jim, Joe, or Bob Hautman’s name in the winner’s circle for the federal Duck Stamp contest every year, but this was the first time the trio placed one-two-three. Joe won the contest with his Congrats to Joe won the 2016 stamp contest with image of trumpeter swans. A few weeks before the contest, I saw Bob’s mallard artwork that placed second while visiting his studio last summer to discuss the 2015 Outdoor News Print of the Year (a trio of bears). The Hautman brothers grew up in St. Louis Park and are truly a Minnesota treasure. Congrats to all three.

8.  Deer baiting record. Here’s a disheartening one. By Nov. 23, deer baiting violations hit a new all-time annual record for Minnesota with 178 tickets from DNR Enforcement. We say it all the time while discussing this topic on Outdoor News Radio  Baiting is unethical and moreover, incredibly easy to bust! State conservation officers have this one dialed in, folks: If you bait, expect to get pinched. Incredibly, the more publicity the media devotes to reporting baiting busts, the more people in this state appear to say, “You know, that baiting thing sounds like a nifty idea. I bet I could pull that off without getting caught.”

7. Camp Ripley archery deer hunt. For the first time ever, the DNR ended up with extra permits after its lottery for its special deer hunt at the 53,000-acre Camp Ripley military training facility. I remember 15 years ago when a Ripley permit was one of the most coveted tags in the Upper Midwest.   On the bright side, the state eventually sold all the permits, and Ripley archery deer harvest was up 41 percent in 2015.

6. Turkey hunting regulations. A bright spot here. DNR Wildlife held public meetings, gathered input, and will further liberalize wild turkey hunting season regulations in the state for 2016. Everyone will keep getting only one bird per year, and the state still probably has some of the more conservative season protocols in the country. But bottom line, it’s easier than ever to break into turkey hunting in the Gopher State, and if you want to hunt gobblers every year, you can do so.

5. Muskie stocking. I’m not sure why this needs to be so darn controversial but it is –every time the state considers adding a few more muskie lakes. The DNR held public meetings in November and December and is taking comment through Jan. 3.

4. 2014/2015 whitetail harvests. The Minnesota deer kill in 2014 bottomed out at 139,000 – the lowest level since the 1980s. It jumped up nicely this year to 159,000 and given the number of lottery areas and the mild winter we’re seeing, should increase even more in 2016.

Too many deer in the early 2000s in Minnesota spoiled us a bit, and I think the DNR overcompensated with too-liberal seasons for a few years. Bottom line, it appears we’ve got this thing starting to turn around with more venison in the freezer and more hunters who saw deer afield in November. Given the decline in letters to the editor on this topic in the print edition of Outdoor News, I think deer management will be less controversial the next few years.

3. Cecil the lion. Sigh. You can read my original blog on the topic here  and my views haven’t changed much. This was the biggest hunting-related story to hit Minnesota, and maybe the planet, in years, so some might argue it should be in the No. 1 spot. There are many other stories of more significance affecting natural resources and environmental health that citizens of the world should be monitoring, but this one certainly went viral. And there’s no denying that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed a couple species of lion as endangered at the end of the year. Anyone who doesn’t think that decision was linked to Walter Palmer and Cecil the lion needs to call me about a bridge I’m selling.

2. Buffer strips/pheasant plan. Minnesota has a governor who has openly stated he never intends to run for public office again. Combine that with Mark Dayton’s love for the out-of-doors and you have a recipe for big thinking and a willingness to ignore some political risk. Unlike the South Dakota Pheasant Summit, which so far has produced a whopping $350,000 from the Rushmore State’s legislature for its Habitat Conservation Fund, Minnesota actually has developed something tangible for habitat protection in farm country. The governor’s buffer proposal could produce more than 100,000 acres of grassland for upland birds and deliver huge water quality benefits for every American citizen between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. Add a CREP III proposal that’s building a head of steam, and Minnesota could see a substantial jump in ring-necked pheasant numbers within a few years as a result of the conservation leadership we’re enjoying right now from the governor’s mansion.

1. Mille Lacs walleye closure. The big lake in central Minnesota probably has made this list in some form every year since the mid-1990s, but it earns the top spot in 2015 for an unfortunate reason. In his story about the walleye fishing closure back in August, Tim Spielman called the DNR’s action “unprecedented.” It certainly was for Lake Mille Lacs, and it’s exactly the scenario we all feared when treaty management arrived 17 years ago.

The good news is that the lake is open to walleye fishing through the hard water as I type these words. Here’s hoping the angling situation for Mille Lacs improves in 2016 and beyond. I’m optimistic.

To see the complete year in review story, pick up the Jan. 1, 2016 print edition of Outdoor News. Happy New Year, folks.

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