The big seasonal shift in activities of the outdoors is nearly complete. The hunting seasons have ended, save for several remaining weeks for rabbit, hare and squirrel hunters. We’re now focused on ice fishing, and snow-centered activities on skis, snowshoes or astride a snowmobile. As put so well in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose…”
But while the seasons have shifted in a big way, there may be value in looking back and reflecting on an activity so recently ended. One such pause for reflection is being orchestrated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is in the process of mailing a survey to several thousand waterfowl hunters across the state—their season having ended December 6—asking them to weigh in on some possible new management strategies. These strategies, if adopted, would change the rules for waterfowl hunting in our state. In addition to those who receive the survey by mail, anyone who is interested is able to go online and register their opinions on a series of nine questions at the DNR’s website, at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/wildlife/waterfowl/waterfowl-public-input.html .
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The last time the Minnesota DNR conducted this kind of waterfowl hunter survey was in 2017. This year’s survey asks some new questions. Motivating it, in part, is the gradual but substantial long-term decline in the number of Minnesota waterfowl hunters. This has impacts, most obvious being a decline in licensing revenue, and with it the DNR’s capacity to do on-the-ground management work to maintain and improve wetlands for waterfowl production. This includes the DNR’s ability to acquire and protect critical habitat parcels from development activity that would destroy their value to waterfowl, as well as many species of nongame wildlife.
The DNR has been innovating and tweaking the waterfowl hunting rules for several years. If a general observation can be made, it is that these rule changes—including harvest limits—have been in the direction of enabling greater harvest, to encourage the retention of current and the recruitment of new waterfowl hunters. Examples have included opening the season much earlier than had been traditional, allowing the harvest of more wood ducks and mallards, and establishing a youth waterfowl hunt before the regular season opens.
As a hunter who first sat on a duck boat seat and peered through cattails at a bobbing flock of decoys roughly a half-century ago, I have some opinions on changes proffered by this year’s survey questions. It’s not inaccurate to say that many of us become more conservative with age, a less flattering description—sometimes valid—is “set in their ways.” On the other hand, perspective—and what might pass for wisdom—may sometimes accompany age and experience.
For what it may be worth, here are observations on several of the questions the survey poses to Minnesota waterfowl hunters. There’s not space to touch on all of them. If it appears that the comments that follow are inclined toward the negative, it may be because it’s important to avoid policies that could be ill-conceived, and let the positives speak for themselves.
Early Blue-Wing Teal Season: The DNR is asking hunters if they would favor an early blue-wing teal season, of up to 16 days before the normal waterfowl hunting season. The logic is that blue-wings are abundant, they migrate early—some even before our regular season opens—and all other states in the Mississippi Flyway offer this.
The DNR noted some hunters’ past objections to an early teal season, including the prospect of mis-identified—off-limits—ducks being shot, and perhaps scaring or dispersing other ducks before the start of the regular season. Unaddressed, however, was the fact that Minnesota’s Youth Waterfowl Hunt is held at that same time, on the weekend two weeks before the regular season begins. Its purpose is to introduce new young hunters to the sport under the mentorship of a non-hunting adult, in a much less competitive atmosphere than on opening weekend.
The prospect of eager hunters shooting other species during an early blue-wing teal season—including the similar-sized green-wing teal, and less easily identified immature ducks of other species—is real. An alternative—and better—option suggested by the DNR is permitting the harvest of two bonus blue-wing teal during the first 16 days of the regular waterfowl season. Let’s not complicate or dilute the benefits of the Youth Waterfowl Hunt two weekends before the regular season begins, just so others can harvest a few more teal before they depart the state, all the while slapping still-active mosquitoes and doing our best to avoid late summer sunburn.
Eliminating the Early Season 4 p.m. Closure: For many years, Minnesota duck and goose hunters have had to pick up our decoys at 4 p.m., for the first two weeks of the season. The logic was to give rest and protection to “local” birds—those breeding and born in Minnesota—to maintain a strong in-state duck population. These birds make up the bulk of our early season harvest. The other objective was to prevent “burning out” these local ducks over the first couple of weekends, then having little shooting until migrants came through.
This was not a unique concept. Away back in 1906, duck hunting guides and landowners on southern Minnesota’s famed Heron Lake drew up and signed on to an agreement to end shooting at 2 p.m. each day, intended to maintain the quality of the hunt. Even today, there are rules similar to this—including completely closed hunting days—on the waters of some private hunting clubs.
The DNR’s rationale is that “harvest and hunter numbers have declined, and the Minnesota breeding duck population remains above average.” Maybe our duck population is as favorable as it is—and some would argue the point—in part because of our long history of 4 p.m. closures. Why mess with success and kill more of the ducks that are laying the golden eggs?
Allow Open Water Duck Hunting: Under Minnesota’s current regulations, hunters must be stationed in their blinds or boats within—or obscured by—emergent vegetation, such as stands of cattails, bulrushes or wild rice. This precludes anchoring in open water and hunting from camouflaged watercraft or more specialized low-profile layout boats.
Minnesota hunters can anchor in open water on several very large lakes: Mille Lacs, Superior, Pepin and Lake of the Woods, but it’s not a common practice. If this were permitted on much smaller lakes, it would deprive waterfowl of the one reliable way they can find peace and rest when needed, on open water away from shorelines. Not to mention potential conflicts between hunters who have set up their blind and decoys in a shoreline location, only to have a layout boat or “floating blind” craft arrive and station itself offshore to intercept approaching ducks. Is this really needed?
Permit Swan Hunting: This question is not in the survey online, and is found only in the DNR’s mailed hunter survey. It is likely to raise eyebrows, and blood pressures, too. If classifying the mourning dove as a hunted species was sensational—opposed by many, who see it as a songbird—this could be seismic.
After being extirpated from Minnesota in the 19th century, the restoration of the trumpeter swan here over the last half century has been a wildlife rehabilitation story of remarkable dimensions. From small populations established in Hennepin and Becker Counties, their numbers have grown to the point where they’re being seen far and wide across Minnesota.
They’ve reached a level of abundance that some feel may justify their being hunted. Swans are hunted as near to us as North Dakota, also in the West, and in the Atlantic Flyway. Unfortunately, trumpeter swans are almost impossible to distinguish from the slightly smaller and more abundant tundra swan. In some states where they’re hunted, a permit and registration system is used to monitor harvest, and to close swan hunting when a predetermined quota has been reached. Perhaps that is what the Minnesota DNR is considering as it seeks hunter input on the question.
Needless to say, it will likely be among the most controversial of the DNR’s requests for input.