Gifts We’d Like Next Year

At the risk of seeming greedy or ungrateful, or of having lost the true spirit of Christmas, I’ve already been thinking about some gifts I’d be pleased to receive in 2020. These gifts are not materialistic, not in the sense of things you could obtain at a brick-and-mortar store, or have delivered to your door via Amazon. But if one or both were to materialize, it would benefit me, and perhaps you, as well.

CWD Progress

I’d like to be given the news that research to find a real-time test for chronic wasting disease (CWD) has borne fruit. Anyone who has a connection to deer hunting knows about CWD, the easily-transmitted, always fatal brain disease of deer, elk and their relatives, which has now spread into Minnesota’s wild whitetail population.

The smoking gun is the captive deer and elk farms in our state that have imported animals from beyond our borders. CWD has been found in animals on eight such farms since 2002. The deer and elk on these farms have been used for everything from producing deer-attracting scents, to canned hunts within their fences.

The first confirmed Minnesota wild deer case was in 2016; the count has risen to 58 in just three years. Due to this spread into the wild—first in Southeast Minnesota, more recently in Central and West-Central Minnesota—it’s been necessary for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to resort to intensive harvest to significantly reduce wild deer numbers in these areas to slow CWD’s spread. Necessary also for hunters there to have their harvested deer tested, a test that now requires roughly a week to complete.

Here’s where the gift might lie. The University of Minnesota is working on a test that could deliver a result in real-time; virtually immediately. This would give hunters more peace of mind. Although there is no clear evidence that the disease can be spread to humans, there is no certainty that the infecting agent can’t mutate and make that unwanted consequence possible. You can’t blame a hunter for wanting to know that a deer he harvests is CWD-free and this test could give that answer.

Equally important, researchers also hope to develop a test for live animals, a test that could be used to test any deer or elk held inside a farm enclosure, and make it possible to euthanize those carrying CWD. Now, testing can only be done on dead deer. Once a deer develops visible symptoms of CWD—unusually thin, disoriented or unusually tame—it has already been spreading the infecting agent into its environment.

Less generous, perhaps, I’d also like to see Minnesota deer hunters be given the gift of a complete closure of captive deer and elk operations in our state. They’re too big a threat to both the tradition and the million-dollar economic value of Minnesota deer hunting. Compensate their owners, perhaps, but recognize and deal with the threat, and move on.

A Duck Management Breakthrough?

Just before Christmas, the Minnesota DNR released highlights of a new “action plan” to improve the prospects for ducks, and thereby for the state’s duck hunters. There were about 140,000 of us a couple of decades ago, but only about 80,000 now. One of the reasons is attrition, as the core of those who are willing to put the necessary effort and investment into this branch of hunting dwindles as age culls our ranks.

The bigger reason is a lack of ducks, despite nearly every year hearing rosy statistics on spring breeding numbers, and projections of more ducks over our decoys in the fall. The DNR’s action plan was developed over the last 10 months. Included is a desire for more wetland acquisition in western and southern Minnesota, areas that—before wide-scale agriculture-driven wetland draining from the early 20th century to the present—came pretty close to being a paradise for duck production and duck hunters. A lot has changed, and the majority of those wetlands are gone.

This goal of more wetland acquisitions is commendable, and waterfowl hunters would certainly applaud it. But not only does this take significant funding, there is serious opposition in many counties to private acres being transferred to public ownership, and county commissioners have actually blocked sales of willing private landowners. With shrinking hunting license revenues, funding this ambition is anything but a sure thing.

“Increasing the quality and quantity of habitat improvements on state lands” is also on the DNR’s list. No argument here; these lands are already “in the bank,” and require no further acquisition expense or landowner easement agreements. But maximizing good management of what is already owned seems so obvious, one wonders why it even deserves mentioning. Wasn’t it a priority in the DNR’s Long Range Duck Recovery Plan proposed in 2006? By the reckoning of many, things have gotten worse, not better.

One of the easiest and least costly actions that could offer immediate help—some believe—is a return to a more conservative harvest philosophy that is more protective of the ducks that breed and raise their young in Minnesota. This has been abandoned for a regimen of season dates, shooting hours and daily bag limits designed to maximize harvest, in the belief that this might boost duck hunter retention and recruitment.

Instead of a 12 noon shooting hour on the season’s first day like we once had—which let locally breeding birds gradually adapt to hunting season pressure—we now open the season one-half hour before sunrise. Minnesota has also moved to the earliest possible duck hunting opening date. This year’s season began on Sept. 21, a full two weeks before those traditional early October openings. Bag limits for wood ducks and mallard hens have also been liberalized, and Minnesota now consistently sets its seasons by the most liberal six-duck federal daily limit.

Maybe it’s time to consider duck hunting regulations matched to the trend of disappointing duck season results, rather than pre-season bird-in-the-bush optimism. We’d like to hope that the DNR has an ace up its sleeve with its latest duck management plan. We’ll give their waterfowl managers the benefit of the doubt, more because we have no choice than because we have great confidence. That’s our gift, and we’ll hope—optimistically—for one in return.