2018 hunting outlook for the Ely area

by Nick Wognum -

Small game and archery deer season open today (Sept. 15). Hunters can expect a mixed bag this season.
DNR Tower area wildlife manager Tom Rusch gave his annual outlook for the fall.
He started with the biggest influence, the weather.
“Last winter we started out cold and snowy with deer season. We didn’t have deep snow, but we had over 15 inches on the ground for a good chunk of winter,” said Rusch.
Deer should have survived the winter but in permit area 118, Rusch said the agency is going to be cautious this year and switch it to lottery versus hunter’s choice.
Rusch believes the snow in 118 was enough to put a dent in the deer population through wolves and starvation.
“Looking at weather and harvest patterns we’re often making decisions on whatever I have as a wildlife manager. Statistically it was average looking at results of last season as a strong antlerless harvest. It was higher than it had been when we had antlerless permits.
“Up here our does can live to be 15 years old but you don’t get 10 year old bucks up here. At age two, bucks are in the breeding game and at three they are and they’re running and they’re losing weight.
“Bucks by age 4-5-6, they’re heavily compromised so when we get those tough winters they get taken out. Six is an old buck up here. We’ve had four consecutive mild or moderate winters now. A buck born in 2013 has never seen a tough winter, and he’s going to have a nice rack.”
Once winter finally left, the North Country had a great growing season. The fishing opening weekend was 75 degrees and we went from winter to summer.
“That what was so unique - it greened up so fast and we had an unseasonable warm May and June temperature-wise. We went from worried about ice out to sunburn in a day.
“Anytime you have a good growing season it’s good for most wildlife. There was no frost from winter to summer that’s why berries were all bumper crops. It was the perfect storm for berry production and gardens.”
Rusch believes the woods hold a surplus of bucks from last year and winter didn’t take all of them.
“Carryover is a better word. With the brutal deer opener we had, those bucks that typically would’ve been harvested are out there.”
CWD and deer farms
There some concerns out there for hunters and wildlife managers. Minnesota is still dealing with Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and it could show up in our neck of the woods.
There are 11 private deer farms in the area and when CWD has been found in Minnesota, it’s been at the private farms.
The problem for people like Rusch is that he can’t find out where the farms are located or any other information on them. That is all handled by a different state agency.
Another problem for the future is the number of hunters is dropping off. Without hunting license dollars coming in, wildlife habitat and wildlife management will be hard hit.
“Minnesota is doing better than nationwide but the Baby Boomers are dropping off and we have fewer people hunting. I used to have a staff of four and now I’m down to 1.5 because of funding,” said Rusch.
And the fewer acres of wildlife management areas (WMAs) there are, the fewer the number of DNR staff for management.
“WMAs are lands we own and manage for wildlife. The state lands up here are trust fund lands where the goals is to maximize timber production and wildlife is taking a back seat. They are going to plant red pines in a row and intensively thin them. When it comes down to it, wildlife and hunters are an obstacle to higher productivity.
“We are public land rich and WMA poor,” said Rusch. Hunters may not understand the difference but they will notice less than ideal hunting conditions as time marches on.
For grouse hunters, aspen is going to be cut every 40 years instead of 65. That will make a difference in the cover available for grouse as an example.
One other note on deer hunting.
“The deer population is coming back so we’re going to see more wolves. The state deer plan harvest target is 200,000. The take home message was we’re not happy but we’re satisfied. People are seeing does and fawns, they’re seeing bucks maybe not seeing big ones but they’re out there.”
Trickle rut?
Rusch said last deer season also could have been a case of “trickle rut” where the full moon arrives at a certain point during the hunting season and the bucks aren’t as active.
“The bucks still get the job done but you don’t see the scrapes and rubs. Of course, it’s more important they get the breeding done.”
Bear hunting
For bears, the state is still trying to get the population back up to 20,000 statewide.
“We’ve backed off on permits for five years. Around here the permits have stayed the same for two years,” said Rusch.
“Statewide what we’re seeing is the average age of the population is four and four is first year females breed. If a female is taken as two and three year olds they haven’t contributed to the harvest .
“Hunters pass on a sow with cubs but at two and three sows don’t have cubs. Last year hunters shot 70 percent males. When natural food is less available males really travel. This year there are incredible foods so we’ll have very little bear movement, and we’ll have a lower bear harvest.
“We’re going to see a decline in harvest and bear bait visits this season. And less nuisance bear activity other than people feeding sunflower seeds. We could see if summer foods go by and hunters and hunting in late September then you have a bit of bears searching for food but in a year like this bears have a lot of fat they den early.
“The only thing that concerns me is the number of females in the harvest.”
Grouse and West Nile
Grouse season opens Sept. 15 and hunters are wary after a poor season in 2017.
“I think it will be a real mixed bag. The million dollar question is, What happened last year? Someone counted a lot more grouse than we had,” said Rusch.
A wet spring and some wet and cold temps last summer may have knocked down the number of grouse in the woods.
This years there’s a new problem for grouse hunters to worry about: West Nile disease.
“We don’t know the impact of West Nile virus on ruffed grouse broods. The should’ve been a year with great grouse reproduction. But we’re not seeing a lot of broods.
“We have this unknown in West Nile and this year there’s a study where hunters can collect blood and feathers. West Nile is in mosquitoes. It’s in every county in Minnesota and it’s really hard on crows and blue jays
“If you see a dead blue jay wear rubber gloves and put it in the trash and keep your dog away from it. It’s a health risk but we just don’t know the impact on ruffed grouse.
“We’re doing a study with Wisconsin and Michigan to pool our data. We don’t know, maybe it’s huge we just don’t know.
“From a population standpoint we have concerns right now for the grouse. If hunters are concerned about West Nile, they should take precaution and wear gloves.
“West Nile in grouse could be here and up here it could be negligible, we just don’t know yet.”
Hunter walking trails
The DNR operates a hunter walking trail system but without a full staff, Rusch is scrambling to get the trails mowed.
“We’re hoping to have our half done by grouse season and we’ll have to contract to do the others. Those trails are very popular, especially if you’re not from up here it’s a place to start .
The DNR maintain 75 miles of hunter walking trails in 20 locations across the Tower area.
Check the DNR web site for more info and maps.
Ducks
If you want to duck hunt around here, you have to be dedicated. This year is no different.
“For ducks it looks a lot like last year. The food for ducks in our area is wild rice. When rice is in the growth stage and we’re having rain events of an inch or more it really hammers the rice.
“The kind of spring we had was bad for wild rice. What we have now is not pickable we call it duck rice. Pickers are better off going to north central or west Minnesota.
“Wild rice is very susceptible to wind and water level changes. We don’t want raising water levels and we were getting it.
“If we don’t have wild rice we won’t have a banner duck year. Duck opening weekend is Sept. 22.”