Hunting season is upon us, Rusch gives outlook
by Nick Wognum
The leaves are turning, the temperatures are dropping and DNR wildlife manager Tom Rusch out of Tower gave his outlook on the fall hunting seasons in the Ely area.
The bear season started on Sept. 1 and the DNR expects it to be a good year.
“The bottom line is St. Louis, Lake and Cook counties were in a severe drought all of May and June and it wiped out all the summer bear foods. No blueberries, raspberries or pin cherries,” said Rusch.
“That’s why when you have a drought, you lose your summer foods and that correlates with extreme bear complaints and that’s what I have all summer. And since I’m short staffed we don’t have the response time.”
Rusch said the DNR has had to authorize shooting two bears that were entering houses.
“Cabin and house break ins happen when you have nuisance bears and generally that’s August, this year it’s been all summer.
“We had one guy on Mud Creek Road where the bear went in and out all week through a window at a cabin. The other one was on the edge of Ely. The bear got in the screen porch and just kept coming back and they couldn’t deter it. When they keep coming back it’s not good.”
Rusch said the DNR asks licensed bear hunters if they would like to take a nuisance bears. That is what happened with those two bears.
“The bear baiting helped complaints subside a little then it will run out and the apple trees will pull them into town.”
Rusch said the bear population is still down and that the lack of food in the woods will drive the harvest numbers.
“With poor foods you get a high harvest. People think there is a high bear population but that’s not the case. On a permit level basis we’re still down,” said Rusch.
The DNR is concerned the harvest will hit female bears hard, making it more difficult for the population to grow.
“If we hit females especially hard, that concerns me. I don’t think our population is high, it’s nowhere near what we had in the late 90s and 2000s. From a wildlife manager’s perspective if we want a healthy bear population we need to back off on the adult female harvest. That’s harder because they hit baits more.
Asking hunters to only shoot male bears is difficult at best.
“The best indicator for females are cubs with that animal. We can’t go boars only because we don’t have an indicator like we do with deer.”
There’s been some good reports on the grouse population but Rusch believes the traditional 10 year cycle is no longer valid.
“This year in the winter our snow was good for grouse. Deep snow is always good because then they’re not affected by cold because they snow roost.
“We had good numbers this spring until I did my two ruffed grouse surveys. I thought I heard less than what I had been hearing.
“We’re not dropping off, we’re not still rising. This whole grouse cycle isn’t cycling like it did in the 60s through the 90s. We’re at 1.6 drums per stop.
“I have not seen a grouse brood until today and it was nine. I don’t judge ruffed grouse in August and the first week of September. We had good nesting conditions and I spent a lot of time in the field and I just didn’t see the broods.”
Rusch said he’s taking a wait and see attitude on ruffed grouse.
Tougher winters are still impacting the deer population.
In general we’re seeing a pattern since 2012 with tougher than average winters and last year was another one. We had winter severity indexes into 140 and the 150s and those are tough winters.
“And it’s not just one winter, it’s a pattern like the 70s where three out of four and five out of seven winters were tough.
“1998 was about as mild as we could get and then we took off mild or average until 2010. We just got lucky, we didn’t get back to back tough winters then.
“If you get back to back you get mortality and that’s what my antlerless recommendations reflect.
“For 118 it’s bucks only. The winter drug on forever it just wouldn’t let go.”
Rusch said a big indicator are the number of fawns per doe. But he warned not to judge what’s in the woods by what you see in town.
“I tell people don’t judge on what’s in town where you have twins and more deer. Where you have feeders and you can’t underestimate where you have plowed roads and trails that’s half the battle you just can’t get around in the tulies.”
Rusch’s best piece of advice for hunters is not to be tied to a certain area.
“If you can’t see and there’s no food and your stand is there, you gotta move. If you’re not seeing anything it’s tough until things come around here. If we shoot less does, that will happen. But it doesn’t happen overnight.”
The timing of this year’s season should also help hunters.
“We had a late start last year but this year we’ll open on the seventh and to me the sixth to the 10th the deer are in helter skelter before they start pairing up.”
The DNR does manage a number of zones for moose. The result is a lowering of the deer population in hopes of saving the moose.
“If we kill 25 does from Ely to Gunflint we’re not regulating that population based on the antlerless harvest. We’re calling it a primary moose range but the harvest isn’t driving decline.
Rusch said hunters like to blame wolves for low deer numbers but he believes it’s the winters that do the most damage.
“Right now the wolf range is the northern half of Minnesota and the only place deer numbers are down is in the very northeast because we have the toughest winters.
“In Thief River they can’t kill enough deer and they have wolves there.
“We could have a wolf season but politically we’re not. I’m not the one making that decision or we would. For three years we had a wolf season and we had a good harvest and it didn’t negatively impact the wolf population and we took 250 animals.”
He said the DNR believes the wolf population is between 2,200 to 2,800.
“How many politicians do you hear talking about wolf management? Zero and that’s what it takes.”
Lower water levels mean good wild rice harvest and higher duck hunting success.
“For wild rice this is the best year in awhile. Droughts and wild rice production go hand in hand plus if you don’t have big storms to uproot rice in the growing season.
“We’re going to hold some ducks in our area. Ducks are where the feed is. And we’re going to have lot of diehard duck hunters hunting in Minnesota because you can’t cross the border due to the pandemic. I look for a really good duck season. Hopefully we get good opener and shoot a pile of ducks.”