2006 Fish and Wildlife Highlights Include Red Lake, Wildlife Habitat Boost

December 28 , 2006

The first walleye fishing on Red Lake in nearly a decade and a big boost for public hunting land acquisition were among fish and wildlife highlights for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this past year.

Anglers and hunters generally enjoyed excellent seasons as well.

"DNR creel census data showed above average catch rates on many of the state's largest walleye lakes, including Mille Lacs, Rainy and Winnibigoshish," said Dave Schad, director of the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife. "Hunters had some of the best pheasant hunting since the Soil Bank Days of the 1960s, contributed to one of the highest deer harvests on record, enjoyed improved waterfowl hunting and benefited from a rising ruffed grouse population. With our partners, we also acquired and restored thousands of acres of habitat that will benefit fish, wildlife and native species," Schad said.

This year's boost in land acquisition came as the DNR completed purchases related to a $10 million bonding appropriation for state wildlife management areas (WMAs) in 2005.

The funding, which allowed the DNR to leverage additional dollars from private, state and federal sources, added 4,584 acres (more than seven square miles) to the WMA system in the past year, and work has started on purchasing additional WMA acres funded by the $12 bonding appropriation from the 2006 Legislature

"This funding will allow us to continue to acquire larger, higher-quality parcels nearer to population centers," said Kim Hennings, wildlife section acquisitions coordinator. "Typically, those parcels are more expensive due to increasing development pressure and demand for recreation land."

ANGLING AND SHORE LAND HABITAT

The opportunity to catch walleye for the first time in nearly a decade drew thousands of anglers to Red Lake for the opener of the 2006 inland fishing season. There was no shortage of early-season action as anglers harvested more than 32,500 pounds of walleye before May 31.

Even though the bite slowed in July and August, anglers harvested an estimated 54,000 pounds (65 percent of the target harvest) of walleye during the open water season. The DNR is considering less restrictive harvest regulations that could be implemented next summer if walleye harvest during the winter and spring remains below target. Elsewhere in the state, anglers had a very good year, particularly on larger well-known walleye lakes. On Mille Lacs, anglers caught 1.1 million pounds of walleye, the second highest total since 1985. Likewise, the total catch on Rainy Lake, 118,000 walleye, exceeded the 10-year average by more than 10,000 fish. On Lake Winnibigoshish, anglers enjoyed the highest catch rate ever recorded on the lake.

"While walleye, bass and panfish are the targets of most anglers, in 2006 we continued to see a growing interest in fishing for and catching really large fish," said Ron Payer, DNR fisheries section chief. "Many 50-plus-inch muskies were caught and released this summer, which would have been unheard of a decade ago, and lake sturgeon, our state's largest fish, continue to attract a growing following as these fish rebound from their low population numbers of the past."

Maintaining sustainable fish populations requires diligent management of walleye stocking, regulations and habitat, Payer said. To that end, the DNR section of fisheries completed the following projects in 2006:

- completed the most comprehensive analysis ever done of the DNR walleye-stocking program and increased the number of fish stocked in more than 200 lakes

- exceeded goals of stocking at least 160,000 pounds of walleye in 2006; preliminary estimates show the DNR stocked 165,400 pounds of walleye this past fall

- a total of 2.9 million fingerling, yearling and adults

- purchased 640 acres and 7.5 miles of land adjacent to lakes and 456 acres and nine miles of land adjacent to streams which will protect sensitive shoreland for fish spawning and habitat

- added four new and enhanced urban fishing opportunities through the "Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN)" program; in addition, 28,000 fish were stocked in 53 FiN ponds in the metro area

- continued intensive management efforts to aid in the recovery of the walleye population at Leech Lake; efforts include stocking of walleye fry, special fishing regulations, cormorant control, research on invasive rusty crayfish, and stepped up aquatic habitat protection; late fall test netting showed an upswing in both young walleye and yellow perch numbers

- finalized the Lake Superior Management Plan, which reflects a decade of progress in rehabilitating Lake Superior's wild lake trout, lake herring and salmon populations

- approved a new, 48 inch minimum for muskies on 45 lakes.

HUNTING AND WILDLIFE HABITAT

Minnesota hunters enjoyed excellent opportunities for deer, pheasants and waterfowl and improved hunting for ruffed grouse, according to early reports. Youth hunters also enjoyed increased opportunities this year as more than 1,000 youngsters had the opportunity to participate in special youth hunts and seasons conducted from Winona to Warroad.

In addition, habitat protection efforts got a boost with the finalization of the Duck Recovery Plan and continued effort on the Working Lands Initiative, which seeks to focus conservation efforts on protecting large complexes of wetland and grasslands.

Wildlife Chief Dennis Simon pointed out there are currently more than 1 million acres of grassland habitat enrolled in farm programs and another 650,000 acres protected in wildlife management areas or waterfowl production areas. "The expiration of a large proportion of existing Conservation Reserve Program contracts beginning in 2007 is a major concern for future wildlife populations," said Simon. "In the coming year, the DNR will continue the marketing of farm bill conservation programs to landowners in partnership with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, Pheasants Forever, and county Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and will be working at the national level to ensure the next Farm Bill has strong conservation programs."

WILDLIFE HIGHLIGHTS FOR 2006 INCLUDE:

- a new 2,840 wildlife management area, on land known as UMore Park in Dakota County, was established by the Legislature for continued management by the University of Minnesota and DNR in cooperation with Dakota County for research, public hunting and other recreational opportunities

- increased the number of 2006 spring turkey permits by 1,001 for a total of 33,976 - convened a committee of sportsmen, conservationists, technical staff and others to consider nontoxic shot issues; the committee recommended a measured approach to moving toward lead shot alternatives

- continued efforts to improve waterfowl habitat and hunting on Swan Lake by eliminating the carp population; this fall, DNR staff treated the lake with rotenone to kill carp that remained after lowering water levels this past year

- to improve waterfowl hunting on Lake Maria, a one-time Mecca for migrating bluebills, the DNR installed a pumping system and electric fish barrier; the system will allow wildlife managers to lower the lake's water levels, revitalizing native aquatic vegetation

- created new hunting and fishing opportunities near the Twin Cities with the acquisition of the Vermillion Empireview Wildlife Management Area in Dakota County; the 475-acre WMA contains upland habitat for pheasants as well as 1.2 miles along the Vermillion River, a trout stream the DNR is working to preserve

- to provide more opportunities for dove hunters, the DNR began managing 14 public fields on wildlife management areas specifically to attract doves

- continued an intensive effort to collect tissue samples from hunter-harvested whitetail deer; samples are currently being tested for Chronic Wasting Disease or bovine tuberculosis (TB) and results will be available in early 2007

- awarded 43 new school programs grants and enrolled them in the National Archery in Schools Program (NASP); in the coming year more than 60,000 students will target shoot thanks to the DNR's three-year-old Archery in the Schools Program

- continued to identify deer population goals by permit area with input from hunters, local residents and businesses as part of a three-year process launch in 2005.

In the coming year, DNR will continue to work toward meeting challenges related to habitat, hunter and angler recruitment and fish and game population management.

"Clearly, our state continues to face many challenges as we work together with our many public and private partners toward quality land, water and species conservation," said Schad. "Still, what we accomplished in 2006 is evidence that we are making good progress thanks to the support of our partners, the contributions of license buyers and the public."

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