MINNEAPOLIS -- The continuing loss of prairie habitat is the major problem confronting Minnesota conservationists, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr told about 400 people in Bloomington last week at the opening of the agency's annual two-day round table with key stakeholders.
As a result, wildlife as varied as badgers, monarch butterflies, ducks and pheasants are suffering population declines, the commissioner said, despite millions of dollars of habitat restoration efforts funded in large part by the Legacy Amendment, approved by voters in 2008.
"We're going to see (habitat) losses that exceed our ability to replace them," Landwehr said. "In a really good year we might create 20,000 to 40,000 acres of habitat. But we're losing 100,000 acres a year. It's not going in the right direction."
Landwehr's warning about "unprecedented" wildlife losses in the state's farmlands essentially was a repeat of remarks he made at the same conclave a year ago.
Friday's gathering was opened by Gov. Mark Dayton, who noted, "We all know that natural resources in this state are a huge part of what's so special about Minnesota."
But the governor said the state's increasing human population and its growing commerce and industry pose challenges to Minnesota's lakes and waters.
All the more reason, Dayton said, for those who oversee about $300 million in Legacy Amendment funds each year to make sure the money is producing results taxpayers expect.
Landwehr offered some success stories from the past year. About 21,000 acres of land had been protected, he said, 240,000 Minnesotans had enrolled in outdoor education classes, 166,000 kids took part in archery instruction and 26,000 Minnesotans earned firearm safety certificates.
Goals for the coming year, Landwehr said, include further cleanup of state waters, addressing the threat of aquatic invasive species, improving deer numbers, finding a fix for Mille Lacs walleyes and comprehensively addressing the prospect of precious metals mining in the northeast.
Funding: Legacy Amendment sets pace.
After five years, projects paid for from the Outdoor Heritage Fund (OHF) are helping to change the state's landscape in ways unimaginable before passage of the Legacy Amendment, a panel of natural resource professionals said Friday.
"We've had money for large projects we've never had before," said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, noting that a single northern Minnesota easement paid for largely by the OHF protected 188,000 acres of forest land.
Landwehr said a cross-section of conservation groups has been engaged to get habitat projects "done on the ground."
The OHF is one of three money pots created by the Legacy Act, along with one that addresses clean water, parks and trails and one that funds the arts. About $300 million annually flows into the funds from the fractional sales tax increase voters approved.
Bill Penning of the Board of Water and Soil Resources said his agency received $71 million in Outdoor Heritage funds since 2009 for the state's Re-Invest in Minnesota (RIM) easement program.
The money helped leverage another $84 million in matching funds to protect and enhance 23,183 acres of habitat.
Mille Lacs: DNR sets bold plan
New, perhaps radical changes in management of Lake Mille Lacs walleyes and perhaps other of the lake's game fish are planned, recently appointed DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira told stakeholders Friday at the agency's round table in Bloomington.
"The goal is to improve the Mille Lacs walleye fishery as expediently as possible with as little negative impact to the community as possible," Pereira said.
Helping the DNR will be national experts who will review fish survey and other data to help understand why so many Mille Lacs walleyes fail to mature.
Mille Lacs appears to have a sufficient number of spawning female walleyes, DNR researcher Melissa Drake said. And the lake appears to have plentiful spawning habitat.
Perhaps the lake's increasing water clarity is helping predators such as northern pike and smallmouth bass become more efficient consumers of small walleyes, Drake said.
Pereira conceded that past DNR Mille Lacs bag limits and slot-size restrictions might have contributed to the problem.
Neither Pereira nor Drake mentioned whether netting of spawning fish in spring by Chippewa bands affects Mille Lacs walleyes.
New regulations intended to increase anglers' harvest of Mille Lacs northern pike and smallmouth bass might be in the offing, Pereira said, along with restrictions on the harvest of young walleyes.
Deer decline a concern
Minnesota's 2013 deer harvest of 172,000 was the lowest in 15 years, and many hunters say that's evidence of a lack of deer. A second consecutive tough winter in northern Minnesota could further reduce the population, they say. And some are pressuring the DNR to boost deer numbers.
The issue was raised at the DNR's roundtable meetings in Bloomington over the weekend, where officials talked about the deer season and explained whitetail population monitoring methods and population goals.
About 50 people attended a discussion Friday, and in a survey, 40 percent were satisfied with their 2013 deer season, and about 26 percent said they were not. However, a majority weren't satisfied with the number of deer they saw, and 63 percent said they have seen fewer deer over the past five years where they hunt.
"The population definitely is down," Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said earlier.
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he doesn't disagree.
"I'd like to see more deer," he said. "I haven't seen a deer in my last four years hunting."
He said the population in the early 2000s was deemed too high, so it was lowered by liberal hunting regulations. "Before it was too high, now it's too low," Landwehr said.
DNR Wildlife Chief Paul Telander said the agency has heard from dissatisfied hunters and said he expects deer regulations next fall will be more restrictive, to try to boost the population in some areas.
Recruitment: finding more hunters, anglers
Though the number of Minnesota hunters and anglers has remained steady at about 1.1 million anglers and 550,000 hunters, the percentage of Minnesotans who hunt and fish is declining, as it is nationally.
So last year DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr established a council to explore the recruitment and retention issue. The 15-member group produced recommendations, released Saturday. Among them:
-- Develop school sporting clubs for youths age 8 to 18 and develop a marketing campaign to target adults age 18 to 44.
-- Develop learn-to-hunt and fish workshops for adults age 18 to 44 and family-oriented outdoor skills sampler events.
-- Create a web-based clearinghouse of hunting, fishing and outdoor skills information, targeted for adults 18 to 44.
-- Create a reverse mentoring campaign in which younger hunters would be encouraged to take an older adult hunting and fishing, trying to maintain participation of adults 45 and older.
-- Create a new family license that incorporates hunting, fishing, state park admittance and other privileges.
Asian carp: the search is on
Reproducing populations of Mississippi River Asian carp are still believed to be south of Minnesota, according to the DNR. But the agency is nonetheless aggressively searching that river, as well as the St. Croix and Minnesota rivers, for signs that silver, bighead and other foreigners have infiltrated state waters.
So far, only a relative handful of "pioneering" Asian carp have been found.
Fisheries managers and technicians are employing hoop nets, gill nets and other means, including electro-fishing, in an attempt to locate possible concentrations of Asian carp in state waters.
DNR regional fisheries manager Brad Parsons told his agency's round table in Bloomington on Saturday that his specialists have learned a lot about Asian carp and how to catch them from their counterparts in more southern states.
Minnesota researchers also have implanted transmitters in about 100 common carp and other fish to track their movements in the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.
The tiny gadgets send "pings" to receivers that have been dropped into the rivers, allowing their movements to be tracked. Asian carp often travel routes similar to common carp, and the collected data will help researchers pinpoint more specifically where Asian carp might be.
Leech Lake: Too many walleyes?
Too many walleyes? It's not an issue many lakes face. But Leech Lake apparently is beset with that problem, according to DNR regional fisheries manager Henry Drewes of Bemidji. As a result, the harvest slot on the big lake will be expanded, beginning with the May fishing opener.
"We'll have a four-walleye limit on Leech, with the protected slot 20 to 26 inches, and one fish greater than 26 inches allowed in the bag," Drewes said.
DNR researchers have detected a decline in the number of yellow perch in the lake, which are a primary forage fish for walleyes. A falloff in the vitality of the lake's walleyes also is suspected.
Intensive stocking in recent years might have led to the increase in the lake's walleye "biomass." Twenty-two million fry were stocked in 2011, with another 7.5 million stocked in 2012 and 2013. A planned stocking of 22 million fry this year in Leech Lake is on hold.
Many walleyes in Leech are too small to appeal to anglers.
The lake's walleye decline noted a decade or so ago was thought by some to be caused by the lake's abundance of cormorants. But Drewes said the bird population has been relatively low in recent years.
Moose: unraveling a mystery
The dramatic decline of Minnesota's moose population remains a mystery, though researchers are beginning to shed some light on the situation.
"Adult moose mortality should be about 10 percent, and it's about 20 percent," said researcher Ron Moen of the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
Though wolves are responsible for about 10 percent of the mortality, "almost 40 percent are just lying down and dying," Moen told roundtable participants on Saturday.
The radio-collared moose study also showed that 30 percent of adult moose were thin or very thin, indicating a health problem. And the cow-to-calf ratio also has been declining, "and that doesn't bode well for the population," Moen said.
Calf mortality also remains a concern: Researchers documented a 70 percent mortality rate. Wolves were responsible for 68 percent of the deaths and black bears 16 percent.
While some people blame wolves for the demise of moose, Moen said the moose population would still be in peril in northern Minnesota even if there were no wolves.
Adding to the mystery: small populations of moose are doing well in Voyageurs National Park and near Grand Portage and elsewhere in the United States.
Mobile maps: access to public lands
Whether it's an angler trying to find a boat access, or a hunter trying to find public hunting lands, or a hiker trying to find a hiking trail in a state park, a new DNR mobile website should help.
The "Recreational Compass" website employs extensive maps to help users locate hunting lands, state parks and forests and a wide range of other recreational areas on mobile devices such as phones and tablets.
"There are 5.5 million acres of public recreational lands now in the palm of your hand," said Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director.
Users can search for detailed maps of virtually any state lands, including state forest, wildlife management areas, state parks and recreation areas, waterfowl production areas, aquatic management areas, and scientific and natural areas. It also includes state trails, including water trails, walk-in access areas, hunter walking trails and nearly 3,000 public water access sites.
The site also provides driving directions and links to other sites where users, for example, could buy hunting for fishing licenses or get detailed lake information from the DNR's popular "lakefinder" site.
The site is at www.mndnr.gov/mobile/compass
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