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Using deer ‘communication centers’ to your advantage all year

by Jerry Davis

Wildlife biologists remind us that even does and fawns, as well as bucks, use scrapes for communication to some extent and throughout the year, too.

A trail camera, set up in a region where deer often create scrapes, captured two interesting images. First, a mature doe came through the area, stood under an overhanging tree, then stood on her hind legs to reach a chewed twig.

Two days later, Aug. 17, a mature buck, still in velvet, stood under the same tree and stretched his neck up to touch the same twig while he tangled his antlers through the leaves and twigs.

Several things are worthy to note here. This may be a location for a deer to acquire CWD, at any time of the year. Also, hunters, deer watchers, and photographers are likely to get a better idea of resident deer at these “communication” locations. And this location is likely to continue to be an even greater communication site during the hunting seasons.

It is possible to “read” this information from trail cameras equipped with ability to transfer data directly to a computer or phone miles away from the site. This will take some of the worry, real or imagined, out of disturbance by humans.


Interest in bear hunt continues to grow

by Tim Spielman

Grand Rapids, Minn. — Hungry bears in Minnesota typically means happy hunters. This fall, ravenous bears in many places may mean many ecstatic bear hunters.

As it’s affected most other natural things in Minnesota, drought also is touching the world of black bears, where limited rainfall has resulted in spotty food sources in some places, and complete berry busts in others.

Whether it’s a lingering COVID hangover or perhaps hunters just recognizing good prospects when they see them, the number of applicants for this fall’s bear hunt surged again in 2021, to more than 24,600. That’s in a range not seen in two decades and is a couple hundred more than a year ago when most outdoor sports saw increased participation by too-long-cooped-up Minnesotans.

That’s not to discount the state’s bear hunt itself.

“We have some of the best bear hunting in the country,” said Andy Tri, the Minnesota DNR’s acting bear project leader based in Grand Rapids. Tri points to a harvest of about 3,200 bears in the state last year and, more impressive, a 60% success rate among hunters in the quota area.

“The word’s out, I guess,” Tri said.

Bear-hunting license sales of about 8,880 last year were the highest since 2012. And while most hunters already have purchased licenses for this fall (about 300 surplus licenses were sold Wednesday), a good chunk of the purchase remains – those sold over the counter to bear hunters in the state’s no-quota area.

Tri said the bulk of last year’s take occurred in the state’s midsection – the transition zone. Dry conditions in the northeastern part of the state led to greater hunter success there, too.

Things are looking up again – for bear hunters, anyway – this year.

“I anticipate an above-average harvest this year – similar or higher than last year,” Tri said.

Bear population management in the state is a balancing act, he said. One goal is for bears to be able to weather a poor food-production year (like this one) and for few adjustments to be made in hunting permit levels. Other considerations are bear-nuisance complaints (at residences and regarding crop damage) and how long hunters in specific areas must wait to get quota-area hunting permits.

Complaints originating at residences, typically, Tri said, are “a good index of the inability of people to secure attractants” – typically garbage containers or bird feeders.

He said he expects eventually to receive more crop damage reports involving bears. The drought, however, has affected crops in some areas, and, further, it’s early yet; corn has yet to mature in many places.

Berry, berry bad

As is usually the case, natural foods available to bears varies by area. This year that may be even more notable. While severe or extreme drought blankets most of Minnesota, there are some areas that actually received timely rains – rains that have inspired the growth of the berries favored by bears.

Tri said he’s seen first-hand and heard from DNR area managers who say foods such as raspberries and black berries look pretty good, albeit the berries themselves might be smaller than normal. And, for future dining, red oak acorns are abundant in some locations.

Then, there’s the northwestern portion of the state.

“In the northwest, the drought is particularly bad,” Tri said. “Essentially, the raspberries are a bust, the blueberries are a bust, and the cherries are a bust.”

Other managers reporting back to Tri have said that the natural food crop, upon closer inspection, is better than anticipated.

And, whether bears find their preferred sources or not, they’ll find something to eat that’s available in the woods.

“They’ll change their diets,” Tri said. “They’re super adaptable.”

Baiting begins

Whether those less-favored natural foods can compete with tasty hunter baits remains to be seen. Bear baiting in Minnesota begins Aug. 13.

The DNR recently reminded bear hunters of baiting changes this year: “Beginning with the 2021 bear-baiting season, hunters no longer need to use email addresses to register their bait stations. The use of email addresses had caused registration issues in the past,” according to a news release.

“Effective this year, hunters will simply need to provide their first and last names, date of birth, and their DNR customer number. Outfitters will need to provide their first and last names, date of birth and license number, and identify whether they are a master bear outfitter or a resident bear outfitter,” the release said.

Tri also reminds hunters not to shoot collared bears.

According to the DNR’s website: “Bear management in Minnesota is based on multiple sources of information: statistics from the bear hunt, assessment of natural food conditions, a population model based on the ages of harvested bears (obtained from teeth submitted by hunters), and results of a long-term, active bear research program. Minnesota has one of the longest, DNR-run bear research programs in the country. The core of this research program is radio-collared bears. Because long-term research on individual collared bears is so crucial to management, we ask hunters not to shoot collared bears.”

More information is available at


Counts show sharp drop in sharptails in east-central Minnesota

By Minnesota DNR Reports

Minnesota’s sharp-tailed grouse population has declined significantly in the east-central portion of the state, according to spring population counts conducted by the Minnesota DNR and cooperators who help count the birds.

Based on the new population information, the DNR plans to close the hunting season in the east-central zone for 2021 and future years. The DNR also is continuing to work with the Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society (MSGS) to explore habitat management options.

“Sharp-tailed grouse require areas of approximately 1 to 3 square miles of grassland and brushland, so managing their habitats often requires cooperation between multiple land owners,” said Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse project leader. “We’ve known for some time that the large, open areas of grassland and brushland that sharp-tailed grouse need are changing and becoming less suitable for these birds.”

Sharp-tailed grouse habitat changes are driven by brushlands becoming forest, conversion to other land uses, and less fire and other large-scale disturbances on the landscape that historically created and maintained the large open areas of grassland and brushland.

The Minnesota Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, Pheasants Forever and others have collaborated with the DNR on targeted habitat management for sharp-tailed grouse in the east-central range and remain committed to enhancing openland habitats.

David Pauly, MSGS president and habitat projects coordinator, said the east-central zone season closure would be difficult, but imperative.

“The east-central range sharp-tailed grouse populations currently exist in association with limited and disjunct habitats where harvest of even a few birds could seriously impact sustainability and genetic diversity within these isolated populations,” Pauly said.

Pauly added that the MSGS is committed to continued collaborations and funding for habitat work. Past collaboration with Pheasants Forever included securing Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund grants totaling $9.2 million over the last decade for habitat enhancement and protection in the east-central range.

The MSGS also used about $715,000 in Conservation Partners Legacy grants over the last five years for habitat improvement and protection, and advocated for other targeted management work to enhance habitat.

“We will continue to do all in our power to expedite the return of a sustainable and thriving east-central population, to maintain the sharp-tail legacy and hunting heritage,” Pauly said.

DNR survey results

To count sharp-tailed grouse, observers look for males displaying on traditional mating areas, which are called leks or dancing grounds. No survey was conducted in 2020, so data from 2021 were compared to those from 2019.

Comparisons of the same leks counted in both years indicate that counts per lek were similar to 2019 in the northwest survey region and statewide. However, sharp-tailed grouse declined 32% in the east-central region, with the number of leks dropping from 30 in 2019 to 18 in 2021, and an average of 7.3 grouse per lek in 2021. In the northwest region, sharp-tailed grouse counts averaged 11.3 grouse per lek at 131 leks that were counted. This year’s statewide average of 10.8 sharp-tailed grouse per lek was similar to the long-term average since 1980, but changes in the east-central region, in the absence of changes in survey effort, indicate that the population has dropped significantly in that portion of the range.

As recently as 2010, 70 leks were counted in the east-central region. The decline from 30 to 18 leks in just two years, and the contraction of the area with active leks, indicate a significant decline in the population.


Minnesota DNR: No wolf season until 2022 at soonest

By Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota DNR said last week it won’t consider holding a wolf hunting or trapping season until 2022 at the earliest.

The agency said in a statement that it’s taking longer than expected to update its 20-year-old wolf management plan, and it’s now expected to be done by March.

“We will use our updated plan as we determine whether and how to use various management tools to ensure continuation of a healthy and sustainable wolf population in Minnesota,” the statement said. “Consideration of whether to hold hunting or trapping seasons will be guided by the updated plan.”

Then-President Donald Trump’s administration in November ended Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in most of the United States, leaving states and tribes in charge of overseeing the animals. Minnesota held wolf seasons from 2012-14 until courts blocked them.

Some states moved quickly to liberalize hunting and trapping rules. In neighboring Wisconsin, a weeklong season was quickly implemented and then cut short early after hunters and trappers killed nearly double the number of wolves the state had allotted. Bills introduced this year in the Minnesota Legislature would have directed the DNR to hold a wolf season in 2021, but they weren’t included in a final environment funding bill.

The Center for Biological Diversity praised Minnesota for moving deliberately. Collette Adkins, the Arizona-based group’s carnivore conservation director, said the state had “wisely prioritized first updating the management plan to reflect new science and the values of all Minnesotans.”


Waterfowler's World: Know Your Ducks

DU biologists offer practical advice for improving your waterfowl identification skills

By Bill Buckley

Because bag limits are broken down by species and sometimes sex, waterfowlers have to be proficient at identifying ducks. That's not always easy. It takes an experienced eye, especially in low-light conditions and when flocks suddenly appear out of nowhere. 

Here are some helpful tips hunters can use to sharpen their ID skills. 


Dr. John Coluccy, director of conservation planning in Ducks Unlimited's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region, offers this helpful tip: "You can often narrow down the most common species you're likely to see by the habitat you're in," he says. "For instance, if you're hunting a forested wetland, chances are you'll see more dabbling ducks, like woodies and mallards, than divers, like canvasbacks and scaup." Conversely, areas of big, open water aren't optimal habitat for dabbling ducks.

Size, Shape, and Color

"Divers have shorter, more compact bodies, stouter necks, and tend to fly straight and fast," Coluccy says, "whereas most dabblers move slower and more methodically. You'll also notice lots of black and white on divers, particularly on cans, scaup, and ringnecks."

In flight, mallard drakes and hens can sometimes be difficult to differentiate, especially in early-season plumage. Focus on the darkness and definition of the breast. Drakes typically have darker, more delineated breasts, but that's not always foolproof.

"Hunters often misidentify drake ringnecks and scaup until the birds are close enough to make out the scaup's solid blue bill or the ringed bill of the ringneck," Coluccy says. "Cans and redheads also might look similar from afar but can be distinguished by their bills when they get closer—the redhead's bill is light blue, and the canvasback's is black and triangular."


According to Dr. Mike Brasher, a DU waterfowl scientist based in Tennessee, the pace of a duck's wingbeats is another useful identifier. "In general, divers have much faster wingbeats than dabblers," he explains, "and larger divers like canvasbacks and redheads have longer, more pointed wings that are built for covering long distances over open water. Dabblers, which have to navigate around trees, typically have broader and more rounded wings that allow for greater maneuverability. But there are exceptions. Ringnecks have slightly more rounded wingtips, allowing them to use tighter, wooded environments. Also, teal certainly appear to have faster wingbeats than most dabblers, although that could be due to their small size."


Duck vocalizations can also be a huge help. Learn what each duck sounds like and you can instantly identify many species, and sometimes even distinguish hens from drakes. When a single mallard circling overhead quacks, you know it's a hen. If it makes a softer, raspy whine, it's a drake.

Low-Light Situations

Identifying ducks at first light and on cloudy days can be difficult. This is when the size of a bird, the length of its neck, and the shape of its profile, bill, and tail can help you make a positive ID. "Woodies, for example, have a telltale square tail," Brasher says, "whereas the long, pointed tails of pintails, even on hens, are unmistakable. Wigeon and gadwalls also have distinctive tails. Bill profiles can also be dead giveaways. There's no mistaking the sloped bill of a canvasback or the spoon-shaped bill of a shoveler. White on wings can also help in low light. Gadwalls, for instance, have white on their speculums, whereas wigeon have white shoulder patches."

Honing Your Skills

Hunters often have to use a combination of indicators to tell one species from another, and it takes lots of practice and experience to improve your skills. The more you study birds in flight and learn to decipher distinguishing features, the more confident you'll become.

Visit DU's Waterfowl ID.

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