The year started off with a generally snowless winter–a benefit to most wildlife species but a detriment to skiers, snowmobilers and other snowsport enthusiasts–and ended with one of the warmest Decembers in recent history, delaying the start of ice fishing across the region.
In between, 2015 was a year of recovery and a year of promise as pheasant populations rebounded, and wildlife managers in Minnesota and North Dakota set conservative deer hunting regulations in an effort to rebuild populations.
Elk, ducks, geese, walleyes and catfish all made the news, and a major wildfire destroyed nearly 5,000 acres of timber in Beltrami Island State Forest. On another sour note, zebra mussels made headway along the Red River and appear to be here to stay.
Those were just a few of the highlights and low points of 2015 in the great outdoors.
Lawmakers and natural resources officials were predicting a quiet session on the outdoors front when the North Dakota Legislature convened its 2015 session Jan. 6. A proposed increase in the Outdoor Heritage Fund from $30 million to $50 million in the 2015-17 biennium was expected to be among the top issues.
Plans were announced for a new catfish tournament on the Red River in Grand Forks. The Scheels Boundary Battle Catfish Tournament was scheduled for June 27-28.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it was planning to use low-flying helicopters to conduct aerial elk surveys in Kittson County and near Grygla, Minn., sometime before the end of March.
The Minnesota DNR, Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the Bureau of Indian Affairs signed a new five-year memorandum of understanding to continue cooperative management of walleyes in Upper and Lower Red lakes.
Longtime Minto, N.D., snowmobile racer Pat Mach, who died in a February 2011 snowmobiling accident, was scheduled to be posthumously inducted into the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in St. Germain, Wis.
Some 4,000 anglers braved stiff winds and subzero windchills to fish the 31st annual Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department ice fishing tournament, which marked its golden birthday Jan. 31.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was offering 5,815 wild turkey licenses for the spring season, down 65 from 2014.
A favorable winter with little snow was providing a much-needed reprieve for deer, pheasants and other wildlife across both Minnesota and North Dakota.
North Dakota bighorn sheep hunters went five for five in 2014, while moose hunters had 88 percent success, and 68 percent of elk hunters filled their tags, the Game and Fish Department reported.
The Red River Valley Chapter of Pheasants Forever, headed by Brian and Michelle Nelson of East Grand Forks, won the conservation group’s 2014 national No Child Left Indoors Award for their efforts to promote youth outdoors programs. The Nelsons were honored Feb. 21 at the 2015 National Pheasant Fest in Des Moines, Iowa.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced it wouldn’t offer a bighorn sheep season in 2015 after a pneumonia outbreak resulted in an extensive die-off in the northern Badlands.
Grand Forks trapshooter Patrick Bosh was featured after being named to the 2015 All-American Junior Gold trapshooting second team for 18- to 23-year-old shooters.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced plans to offer 301 elk licenses — 40 more than the previous year — and 131 moose licenses — an increase of 20 from 2014 — for the 2015 season.
Duane Peterson of Bemidji, Minn., and Northland Tackle — the company he co-founded — were among the 2015 inductees into the Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame.
Winter aerial surveys showed another decline in the Grygla, Minn., elk herd, which stood at 18, down from 20 in 2014 and 28 in 2013 — well below the population goal of 30 to 38.
A Fargo angler, Jack Fletcher, was recognized as the new holder of the state cisco record for the 2-pound, 9-ounce fish he caught while fishing Beaver Bay on Lake Sakakawea. Fletcher’s fish topped the old record by 1 ounce.
North Dakota deer hunters shot an estimated 26,300 deer for a success rate of 60 percent during the 2014 gun season, the Game and Fish Department reported. The success rate compared with 55 percent during the 2013 gun season.
Two mule deer taken during the 2014 deer gun season from unit 3F2 in southwest North Dakota tested positive for chronic wasting disease, the Game and Fish Department reported.
Anglers kept 140,000 pounds of walleyes and logged 1.75 million hours of pressure during the winter fishing season on Upper Red Lake. Fishing pressure was up 75 percent from the previous winter, the DNR said.
The Minnesota DNR announced plans to conduct a creel survey along the U.S. portion of the Red River beginning May 1 and continuing through September.
The Minnesota DNR said anglers on Upper Red Lake would face a two-walleye limit and a 17- to 26-inch protected slot limit when fishing season opened May 9. The tighter regulations came in the wake of a banner winter fishing season on Upper Red.
A fire that broke out during dry, windy conditions in Beltrami Island State Forest burned more than 4,500 acres of timber before it was brought under control. The DNR later said the fire was caused by a slash pile DNR foresters had lit in November 2014 and thought to be extinguished before winds reignited embers smoldering underground.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department said it would draft new deer license goals as part of its next five-year management plan. During a meeting in Grand Forks, wildlife chief Jeb Williams said the department was planning to set license numbers at a level that maintains the benchmark hunter success rate of 70 percent.
Generally poor winter fishing along the south shore of Lake of the Woods followed by a mediocre spring season on the Rainy River wasn’t caused by low walleye numbers, DNR officials said.
The spring mule deer survey in western North Dakota showed a 24 percent increase in mule deer numbers from the previous year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was offering 43,275 deer gun licenses for the 2015 deer gun season, down more than 4,700 from the previous year and the lowest number since 1978.
Minnesota and North Dakota fisheries officials said they were collaborating with Manitoba and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln to tag channel catfish along the U.S. portion of the Red River as part of a study already underway in Canada to track the species’ movements.
Lake of the Woods and Devils Lake were named among the “11 Best Fishing Spots in North America” by online site LiveSmarter.
A study using GPS transmitters on sandhill cranes in northwest Minnesota aimed to learn more about the two population segments — Midcontinent and Eastern — that intersect in the northwest part of the state.
Ducks Unlimited was overseeing a study in the Oil Patch of northwest North Dakota to learn more about the impact of energy development on waterfowl productivity in the part of the Prairie Pothole Region that falls within the Bakken Formation.
The DNR received a $200,000 grant from the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources to launch a GPS elk study in northwest Minnesota. The study, set to begin in the winter of 2016, calls for fitting 20 elk with GPS collars to learn more about their home ranges and habitat preferences.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was proposing to open Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge to ice fishing as part of a package of regulations to expand fishing opportunities in four federal refuges in the Devils Lake Wetland Management District.
DNR fisheries crews were sampling fish on the Red River as part of a survey the agency conducts every five years along the U.S. portion of the Red River.
The Minnesota Legislature repealed a regulation that would have required boaters in Minnesota to complete aquatic invasive species training and obtain a decal from the DNR certifying completion of the training. Instead, an “AIS affirmation provision” was being added to new watercraft and nonresident fishing licenses beginning in 2016, affirming recipients have read and understood the state’s AIS laws.
Minnesota’s breeding mallard population was estimated at 206,000, down 20 percent from the previous year but 17 percent above the recent 10-year average.
Spring pheasant crowing counts in North Dakota were up 10 percent statewide from last year, and ruffed grouse drumming counts in Minnesota were unchanged from the previous year, officials in the two states said.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department confirmed larval zebra mussels had been found in large numbers along the U.S. portion of the Red River during a late June survey from Wahpeton to Pembina, N.D. A single adult zebra mussel also was found on the screen of a water intake structure in Fargo.
Julian “Fuzz” LePage, a bush pilot who owned a flying service on Lake of the Woods in Warroad, Minn., and later in Alaska, died at the age of 80.
North America’s spring duck population set another record, based on results from an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. The survey tallied an estimated 49.52 million breeding ducks, up from 49.15 million the previous year and 43 percent higher than the long-term average.
Th North Dakota Game and Fish Department enacted emergency rules requiring boaters on the Red River to remove boat plugs during transport and drain all water from bait buckets away from the river. The rules came after the discovery of larval zebra mussels along the entire U.S. portion of the river.
Overall walleye numbers were down on Devils Lake, results from the Game and Fish Department’s annual July adult population survey showed. The decline was driven by a drop-off in 15-inch-and-smaller walleyes. The abundance of other sizes was near the long-term average. Another positive was an increase in 10- to 12-inch perch, Game and Fish said.
The proposal to open Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge to winter fishing became official.
Students and faculty from the UND Biology Department were featured for their efforts in using unmanned aircraft to monitor overabundant snow geese and the damage they’re causing to the remote tundra landscape on the Hudson Bay coastline near Churchill, Man. The UND researchers visited the remote area in June and July.
Minnesota wildlife officials were bullish on fall ruffed grouse hunting prospects. Spring drumming counts were unchanged from the previous year, but anecdotal reports suggested a good hatch in the species’ Minnesota range. By most assessments, that prediction later would turn out to be overly optimistic.
North Dakota wildlife managers were optimistic about the state’s duck and goose seasons going into the regular waterfowl opener. The outlook in northwest Minnesota also was favorable, DNR managers said.
North Dakota’s roadside pheasant counts were up 30 percent statewide from last year, with brood counts up 23 percent and the average brood size up 9 percent. Southwest North Dakota had the highest counts, with 25 broods and 207 birds tallied per 100 survey miles.
Steve Crandall, longtime manager of Turtle River State Park near Arvilla, N.D., was retiring after 23 years at the helm.
The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association’s Hides for Habitat program was featured on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was predicting good hunting for the state’s 2015 pheasant season, which opened Oct. 10. Outlooks also were favorable in South Dakota and, to a lesser extent, Minnesota, wildlife officials in the two states said.
Five of seven hunters with elk licenses in northwest Minnesota filled their tags with “nice-sized” bulls, the DNR said.
Conservative regulations aimed at helping rebuild deer populations were the rule going into the deer hunting openers in Minnesota and North Dakota. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department offered 43,275 tags for the deer gun season — the lowest number since 1978. Minnesota drastically reduced antlerless permits.
The Minnesota DNR announced a winter limit of three walleyes with a 17- to 26-inch protected slot effective Dec. 1 on Upper Red Lake. Anglers could keep one walleye longer than 26 inches in their three-fish limit.
The DNR announced its new proposed five-year plan for managing elk in northwest Minnesota. Highlights of the proposal including increasing the goal for elk populations in central Kittson County to a herd size of 65 to 75 animals, up from the current goal of 20 to 30. The DNR developed the draft plan with help from local work groups that included a variety of stakeholders. The new plan is scheduled to take effect in 2016.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department hopes to increase deer numbers to the point where it can offer 75,000 gun licenses in five years and maintain the benchmark hunter success rate of 70 percent. Game and Fish staff announced the proposal during the department’s fall round of statewide advisory board meetings.
The DNR completed a series of public input meetings on its proposal for a new five-year elk management plan. John Williams, regional wildlife manager for the DNR in Bemidji, said meetings in Lancaster and Grygla, Minn., drew about 50 people and 30 to 40 people, respectively.
Nearly 50 people had to be rescued from Upper Red Lake after a large crack opened and prevented the anglers from getting back to shore. No one was injured.
Persistent warm temperatures resulted in one of the latest freeze-ups in years. Going into Christmas, resorts on the south shore of Lake of the Woods still hadn’t gotten their rental houses on the ice, a delay that only has occurred a couple of times in the past 25 years.