Good news for Ely area hunters: Deer and grouse numbers are up

by Nick Wognum
DNR wildlife manager Tom Rusch sat down recently to talk about the best time of the year, the fall.
He reviewed the winter weather and how it has impacted wildlife in this area.
“It was mild winter number three that’s the story for a lot of critters, most certainly for deer,” said Rusch.
With low snow depths and not a lot of cold stretches, the area deer herd is back. In the Ely area hunters will be able to shoot a buck or a doe in what the DNR calls Hunter Choice.
That will likely changed to managed next year meaning hunters can take two deer. The reason for this is simple, we have moose here and the DNR believes fewer deer means more moose.
“We’re going to do what we can for moose. At the same time we’re not eliminating deer.
“Five years ago we would’ve continued to grow the deer population but the research shows 10 deer per square mile is too high. This balancing act between deer and moose is a tight rope,” said Rusch.
Rusch believes because of low hunter density, the greatest factor for the deer population is the weather.
“By and large it’s all about the winters. Now with three consecutive years of mild winters, I know what I’m seeing and no matter where you hunt you’re going to see more deer.
“For the Tower area in the last two years the buck kill has increased 19% last year and 14 % in 2015. And if the weather is conducive we’ll top that this year,” said Rusch.
Hunters should also see bigger bucks in the woods, although predominately there will be more spikes and forks.
“There are a lot of young deer in the population but this is three years now and you can’t say all the deer are small bucks. We’re at a point where there are some nice ones out there. You’re still going to see the young and the dumb, it’s amazing even in the summer the big guys only come in at night.”
After two historically severe winters in 2013 and 2014 when there were hardly any fawns, this year there’s been young spotted deer being spotted all over.
“The deer herd has now increased three years in a row. Populations are now approaching established population goals in Tower permit areas. The 2016 and 2017 fawn crop is huge with adult does in excellent condition following the mild winters,” said Rusch.
For special muzzleloader park hunts in the city of Tower and the Soudan Underground Mine-Lake Vermilion State Park, the deadline to apply is Thursday, Sept. 7.
Bear season opened on Sept. 1 and Rusch expects hunter success to be down this year with plenty of natural food available in the woods. For the Eagles Nest area there are numerous people feeding bears as well.
However, Rusch said low permit numbers and less competition increases hunters’ odds. Scattered food sources should increase bear movement later in the season.
In the Ely area, hunter success rates were as high as 50 percent.
Hunter success is directly related to natural food abundance, hunter numbers, and bear population size. Success has increased with the decrease in permits over past five years. It historically has varied from 20-40%. In 2016 hunter success was at record levels in some permit areas and averaged 50% in the quota zone.
Of bears harvested, the majority were males, at 65-68% in the Tower area.
Area bird hunters should see good numbers of grouse this year.
“Drumming counts were up in the northeast from 1.5 in 2016 to 2.5 in 2017 which is excellent. I would’ve never guessed they were up that much,” said Rusch. “I have seen more broods this year though and our people out trail mowing have been seeing birds.
“I think it’s going to be a good year. Generally speaking the habitat for ruffed grouse is good, we’ve got birds out there and there’s lots of opportunities. I expect to hear good reports.”
Rusch said the 10-year grouse population cycle is two to three years from the peak.
“During June when the young birds are real susceptible to hypothermia, if it’s bad conditions it can hit grouse hard. We didn’t have that this year,” said Rusch.
The DNR maintains 75 miles of mowed walking trails for grouse hunting. In the Ely area that includes 2.2 miles off the Glipi Road on the Fernberg and 2.6 miles in an area off the Echo Trail near Little Long Lake.
For more info on hunter walking trails see
There were no significant changes for the 2017 duck season.
“We don’t have the rice here. The duck hunting here and the ducks just get sucked to the west. Last year we didn’t have a lot of ducks locally even though statewide and nationally they are showing good numbers,” said Rusch.
Last year with temperatures in the 80s all the way into deer season, it changed how ducks migrated. If they don’t get bumped south by the weather, the Tower area does not see as many ducks.
The statewide early goose season is September 2-17 with a bag limit of five. The early opener is better for wood ducks and teal.
Saturday, Sept. 23 is the waterfowl opener and youth waterfowl day is Saturday Sept. 9 for youth age 15 and younger.
The north duck zone will run from Sept. 23 to Nov. 21
Shooting hours are a half hour before sunrise for opener until 4 p.m. through Friday, Oct. 6.
The bag limit remains at six ducks/day with a possession limit of three times the daily bag limit for all migratory birds
Changes for this year include a pintail limit of one per day and two black ducks per day.
There are two state waterfowl refuges in the Tower area. Butterball Lake (created in 2017) and Little Rice Lake (created in 2013) are waterfowl refuges established to provide secure feeding and resting cover in northern St. Louis County during waterfowl season.
Water levels are high in the Tower area, according to Rusch, not super high but high enough.
Field staff are reporting a below average year on the majority of Tower area rice lakes. High water levels during June and July were tough on developing rice stands.
Some lakes are above average, but most are below average and others are a total bust. Most rice stands are right on schedule in developing due to the warm growing season we experienced this year.
Rusch said to expect a below average ricing year for our area this fall.
Heading north in a hurry are wild turkeys which have already been hunted in St. Louis County near Cotton.
“We’re seeing a continued expansion of birds from the south. They were planted two years ago and with successful mild winters they’ve been doing very well pushing into the north,” said Rusch.
Turkeys like a mix of forest and field and will use cutovers and roads as well.
“They’re a pretty adaptable critter,” said Rusch.
The University of Minnesota and the Fond du Lac Band are cooperatively researching the potential for elk re-introduction to east center and northeast Minnesota. Three study areas have been proposed on county, state and tribal lands. The northern study area would be west of Hwy. 53 in the Cotton/Makinen/Markham/Melrude area.
Currently, researchers are studying habitat quality along with landowner and public tolerance for an elk re-introduction. The timeline would be about 10 years.
“Brainworm is snot a factor from deer to elk and you would not see them in any moose zone. I think the public has shown support for elk but the problem is where there are conflicts with farmers.”