MARSHALL - A month before the 2013 waterfowl opener, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had some good news to report in terms of hunter numbers and pheasant and duck harvests.
More small game hunters hit Minnesota's fields and forests in 2012 than the previous year, according to the DNR's annual small game survey.
The number of pheasant and duck hunters increased 8 percent and corresponded with a slight increase in pheasant and duck stamps sales. In 2012, an estimated 84,000 people hunted pheasants, and 90,400 hunted ducks.
"The winter of 2011-2012 was pretty mild, so we had above average survival, and we had a nice spring in 2012, which means good reproductive success," said Nicole Davros, a DNR wildlife research biologist with a focus on pheasants. "One of the other things that factored in is hunters knew the pheasant count was up, and with crops already being harvested the chances of getting birds was higher going into the season, so more people might have decided to buy a license for pheasants."
And although ruffed grouse are on the downward side of their 10-year population cycle, the number of grouse hunters increased 6 percent in 2012 to 97,200, the DNR said.
Statewide estimates show that hunters harvested 264,000 pheasants, 835,000 ducks and 355,000 ruffed grouse.
The DNR annually surveys small game hunters to make estimates of both hunter numbers and harvest trends. For the 2012 season, 7,000 small game license buyers were surveyed of which 3,520 surveys were returned and usable.
The DNR said harvest of ducks and pheasants in 2012 was comparable to 2011, with hunters taking an average of 9.2 ducks and 3.1 pheasants per hunter. Harvest averages from 2011 showed the average hunter took 8.8 ducks and 2.6 pheasants.
Harvest of pheasants and ducks likely was higher because an unusually mild winter of 2011-2012 followed by a warm spring allowed for above average winter survival and favorable reproductive conditions.
"Last year was a function of a good winter, good spring for reproduction and the weather conditions through summer and fall," Davros said. "The drought problem wasn't good overall for wildlife, but hunters could get out earlier and look for birds. Hopefully people had more looks and more shots at them."
Davros said judging from survey data and roadside surveys, this might be a down year for pheasants.
"I don't know for sure where it's going to be, but with the late winter we had and late spring with wet conditions at the peak of hatching, I think things just look really delayed," she said. "The numbers show that population might be down, but I've heard from a lot of people who say they're seeing really young chicks - two weeks old at this point instead of two months old. It seems like the birds are late this year."
DNR Waterfowl Staff Specialist Steve Cordts said duck numbers have risen the last two years mainly as a result of the opener being moved to the Saturday nearest Sept. 24. From 2005-2011, state law prohibited the season opening before the Saturday nearest Oct. 1. That changed in 2011 when it opened a week earlier, in September.
"We also implemented different duck hunting zones, and that probably has also helped increase the harvest some," said Cordts. "But more of it is because the seasons have opened earlier the last two years than it traditionally had."
This year's waterfowl season opens Sept. 21, which, like last year, should lead to an increase in harvest numbers of early migrates like blue-winged teal and woodducks. Cordts said there are some minor changes in regulations for bag limits - canvasbacks have gone from one to two; scaup from four to three - but other than that, there are no major changes in store for the upcoming season.
Cordts said overall breeding duck numbers are up about 30 percent from a year ago, and continental numbers are similar to last year. He said hunters can expect to see a lot of younger ducks this fall since the spring weather made for a later nesting season.
"Hatches were delayed, but it's hard to say what kind of influence that will have when September 21st rolls around," he said. "I expect it to be pretty similar to last year, but so much of that can change with the weather."