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Join the WTIP News Staff for a program packed with news, music and some humor.  This program covers politics, local news and issues. DayBreak airs 7-8 a.m. on weekdays.

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Otherworldly moss animals: Freshwater bryozoa

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These aquatic creatures look like something from a science fiction movie. In this edition of North Woods Naturalist, WTIP’s Jay Andersen talks with naturalist Chel Andersen about moss animals.


 
 

Points North: Should the Boundary Waters Be a Wolf Sanctuary?

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Should Minnesota establish a wolf sanctuary, where hunting and trapping of the species is not allowed? Recently, the eminent wolf biologist Dr. L. David Mech suggested creating a sanctuary as a compromise to the ongoing controversy over the state's new wolf hunting and trapping season via an interview with the International Wolf Center in Ely.
 
The controversy boils down to a debate between those who believe the wolf population should be managed by hunting and trapping and those who believe the animals should be protected from the same. In the interview, Mech is asked if there is a way to satisfy those who favor recreational wolf hunting as well as those who oppose it.
 
The state's present compromise is to limit the number of wolves killed and to allow them to be taken only during certain seasons, Mech replied. Then he says, "Other than more-stringent regulations on taking, which will bring howls of protest from those in favor of hunting wolves, the only other compromise that has not yet been mentioned is to set aside a certain part of the state where wolves would be protected year-round."
 
He suggested the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a candidate for a wolf sanctuary, because it is far from areas with livestock. Mech has been studying wolves there since 1966. At one million acres, the BWCAW encompasses 6 percent of the state's wolf range. About 150 wolves in 20 to 30 packs live there. Due to difficult access, wilderness receives minimal hunting and trapping pressure.
 
Curious, I called Dr. Mech to learn more about his idea. He stressed that he is proposing a sanctuary as a type of compromise for the contentious wolf hunting issue. For his position on wolf management, he directed me to his website, where he writes:
 
"Individual citizens have individual opinions about wolf management.  State legislatures and Departments of Natural Resources must balance all these many conflicting views while ensuring that their wolf populations survive but conflict minimally with humans. As long as the wolf is no longer endangered in a particular state, I support that state’s approach to managing its wolves."
 
It would be up the Minnesota Legislature, rather than the DNR, to create a wolf sanctuary. As of this writing, no bills to do so have been introduced.
 
I asked Mech if creating a BWCAW wolf sanctuary might conflict with future efforts to save the area's moose population, which is experiencing a sharp decline. In other words, what if we have to kill wolves to save moose? He said if the present studies determine wolves are a predation problem for moose, someone could propose killing wolves to protect them. However, biologically it would be difficult to kill enough wolves to make a difference. He isn't sure wolves are heavily preying upon moose calves, which some folks speculate is occurring.
 
"Our research has found wolves generally take older moose and some calves," he said.
 
I also talked with DNR large carnivore specialist Dan Stark, who said refuges and sanctuaries are typically created for biological reasons, such as protecting resting or breeding habitat for waterfowl. A wolf sanctuary would be created for societal, rather than biological reasons--a new idea. Currently, Minnesota has areas closed to wolf hunting, such as state parks, national wildlife refuges and some tribal lands. The largest sanctuary is Voyageurs National Park, the only area vast enough to encompass one or multiple wolf packs. Elsewhere, wolves likely move between refuges and areas open to hunting.
 
Hunters and trappers are required to register the wolves they take and to report the kill location, so the DNR can monitor where the harvest occurs on the landscape over time. If future harvest data shows too many wolves have been taken in specific areas, the agency can adjust harvest quotas accordingly. Data from Minnesota’s inaugural hunt suggests most wolf hunting occurs near populated areas. Analyzing the harvest location data from the 2012 hunting and trapping seasons, Stark said wolves are being taken where people have the best access. "Some areas are just more accessible to hunters and trappers due to roads and terrain," he said.
 
Harvest data shows six wolves were taken in or very near the BWCAW in 2012. Along the North Shore, 24 wolves were taken in Lake County and 14  in Cook County. In Cook County, most wolves were taken in areas accessible by roads. A couple of wolves were taken in the BWCAW, as well as one up the Gunflint Trail and three north of Hovland. The BWCAW encompasses roughly one third of Lake and Cook counties. Based on the 2012 data, closing the Boundary Waters to wolf hunting and trapping would have had virtually no effect on the overall wolf harvest.
 
Creating a wolf sanctuary might assuage some critics of recreational wolf hunting and trapping, but it raises larger issues. If we establish a refuge for wolves based upon societal, rather than biological reasons, will we do the same for other species? Certainly, a new wolf sanctuary would open the door to that possibility. I suspect the implications of setting a precedent for societal-based wildlife refuges would be a serious consideration for lawmakers and wildlife managers if a wolf sanctuary proposal were to move forward.
 
However, the chances of that happening this year appear slim. State Representative David Dill, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, has said he won’t allow any bills on trapping or guns to pass out of his committee to the House floor, due to his concerns that legislators could then attach wolf-related amendments. Dill’s district includes the BWCAW.

Airdate: March 15, 2013


 
 

Points North: Will Water Management Influence Future Farm Policy?

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News reports from the Pheasant Fest show held in Minneapolis during February suggest the best days of pheasant and duck hunting in the upper Midwest are behind us. Record high prices for corn are transforming the agricultural landscape, as farmers drain wetlands and plow up grasslands in a rush to devote every available acre to producing corn. Farm policies, including taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance, encourage producers to farm even marginal ground with minimal risk of failure.
                                                                                       
Particularly telling were Pheasant Fest interviews by Dave Orrick of the St. Paul Pioneer Press with Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, and Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Transcripts of the interviews are available on the newspaper’s website. When Orrick asked, "Is our farm policy really square with conservation?" Ashe replied, "No, it is not." Orrick posed the same question to Vilsack, who responded, "I don't know what you mean."
 
To be fair, Vilsack probably doesn't often get asked questions about farmland conservation. In his world, high prices and strong demand for commodities mean times are good. As U.S. Agriculture Secretary, he must contend with a toxic political climate that has stalled the Farm Bill in Congress and led to endless budgetary strife. In the interview, he pointed out that the USDA's conservation efforts are limited by Washington's fiscal realities. Still, Vilsack never acknowledged in the interview that conservation is important not only for bird hunting, but also for the overall health of our nation’s land and water.
 
Ducks and pheasants may eat corn and other grains, but cultivated ground doesn't grow birds or much of anything other than the intended crop. Game birds need habitat--grasslands and wetlands--to thrive. Without habitat, an agricultural landscape is a desert not only for game birds, but for all but the most tenacious flora and fauna. Even commonplace species may disappear.
 
Consider the plight of the American bumblebee. The Christian Science Monitor reports researchers have found this wild bee, once the most common species in the Upper Midwest, has nearly vanished from the northern portion of its range. In Illinois, a researcher recently found only half of the wild bee types—54 of 109—that had been collected and cataloged by a naturalist in 1909. Just one American bumblebee, a queen, was discovered. The drastic decline in bees is particularly troubling because they are the primary pollinators on the landscape.
 
Researchers speculate disease and parasites contributed to the bee decline, but doing so comfortably ignores the elephants in the room. A century ago, the farmland of Illinois was a patchwork of varied crops, pastures, wetlands and woodlots, all of which provided habitat for bees. Now nearly every acre is devoted to corn and soybean production and subjected to continued applications of fertilizers and pesticides. In other words, it’s become a place that takes the buzz right out of a bee.
 
Habitat loss becomes permanent when it is accompanied by drainage, as has occurred across much of the Corn Belt. Until recently, less drainage had occurred in the Dakotas, which is why those states contained a remarkable abundance of pheasants, ducks and other prairie wildlife. Now wetland drainage and drain tiling of crop land is rapidly occurring in eastern South Dakota, where conservationists say game birds—and likely other wildlife—are in sharp decline.
 
Accelerating drainage on the landscape not only eliminates habitat, but it alters the land’s ability to use and retain precipitation. This week, the Minnesota DNR announced that despite an average or above average snowpack, the spring melt will do little to alleviate existing severe drought conditions, because the melt water will run off the still-frozen ground. Instead, the DNR warns we should brace for spring flooding in the Red River Valley. It will take rainfall after the ground thaws to ease drought conditions.
 
It seems, well, unnatural that we can experience severe drought and devastating floods simultaneously. But wetland drainage and ditching removes the landscape’s mechanism to retain water and allow it to more slowly enter our waterways and replenish underground aquifers. Instead, the spring melt, once an integral part of the prairie’s ecological cycle, rushes downstream to become someone else’s problem. Catastrophic spring floods have become routine occurrences.
 
Oddly, we are finding, even in this Land of 10,000 Lakes, that we are depleting our groundwater supplies. In short, we are drawing more water out of the ground for irrigation, municipal water, ethanol production and other uses than Nature can replenish. A recent report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune notes that water shortages are already a reality in portions of southwestern Minnesota. While this region of the state is naturally dry, agricultural drainage is exacerbating the situation. Problems with metro area water supplies are anticipated within the next 20 years. The DNR reports that conflicts over groundwater use are becoming more common across the state. Ironically, Minnesota receives enough precipitation to meet its water needs and replenish groundwater supplies. The problem is too much of that precipitation is drained off the land and whisked downstream before we an opportunity to use it.
 
The average hunter may not make the link between April floods and a lack of October pheasants and ducks, but the link exists. Decades of federal farm policies designed to accommodate large scale agricultural production have altered the landscape and modified or destroyed natural functions. While these alterations have improved farm productivity and, some argue, provided low-cost food, we paid a price that can be measured by poor water quality, more soil erosion, increased flooding and a loss of wildlife.
 
Most conservationists believe farmland habitat losses are permanent. While I’m dismayed at the present rate of habitat loss and worried we’ll soon see sharp declines in the abundance of ducks, pheasants and other wildlife, I’m not sure we’ve reached the end of the line. In the future, federal farm policies and priorities may change to encourage the restoration of wetlands and grasslands. Small restorations already occur when former farmlands are acquired by wildlife agencies and converted to habitat. However, if large-scale restoration ever happens, the impetus to do so will likely be related to water management rather than wildlife habitat. After all, we can get by without pheasants, but we can’t get by without water.

Airdate: March 8, 2013


 
 

Points North: Roles Reversed - Canadians Head to Minnesota for Outdoor Fun

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Working a booth or exhibit at a sport show is not everyone's cup of tea. Days are long as you talk to folks in an endless parade of passersby, promoting the product or organization you represent. What makes shows fun are the short, yet interesting, conversations you have with people who check out your booth.
 
Last weekend, I spent a couple of days at the Central Canada Outdoor Show in Thunder Bay. I've worked the show for a number of years and always enjoy seeing many Canadian friends and acquaintances. I even recognize some of the folks who attend the show every year. The reporter in me regards the many brief encounters with folks from a wide array of backgrounds as a way to check the pulse north of the border.
 
Minnesota's closure of the 2013 moose hunt was a frequent conversation starter. Several people said moose numbers are declining in parts of northwestern Ontario, too. Most Canadians blamed moose woes on mild winters, more deer, and bear predation. Ontario's bear population increased after the spring bear hunt was closed about a decade ago. Many people believe bears prey heavily on newly born moose calves. Ironically, since the spring hunt closed, deer numbers increased as well. Moose are susceptible to deer-borne parasites and disease.
 
I fielded several questions about snowmobiling and ATV riding in Minnesota. Due to the high costs of maintaining trail systems and relatively few trail users, snowmobile trails in the Thunder Bay area are no longer being groomed. Avid sledders are heading to Minnesota to tour trails. Ontario trail passes are expensive, so the cessation of grooming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because passes aren’t required on ungroomed trails. As for ATVs, Canadian riders are curious about our designated trail system. One man told me he’d ridden the ATV trails near Silver Bay last summer. He was impressed at the quality of trails and the whole experience.
 
Canadians are crossing the border in droves to enjoy outdoor activities such as downhill and cross-country skiing, hiking and bicycling. I talked to folks who were vacationing not only on the North Shore, but also in places like Grand Rapids and the Brainerd lakes region. Grand Marais, about a 1 ½-hour drive from Thunder Bay, is a tremendously popular day trip. Nearly everyone I talked to at the show made regular, recreational visits to Minnesota. Their presence hasn’t gone unnoticed. One group of Duluth motels was at the show promoting a special discount package for rewarding Canadians for frequent stays.
 
All of this southbound traffic is a relatively new phenomenon. Not so many years ago, far fewer Canadians were crossing the border. What changed? The economy. Canada emerged from the Great Recession relatively unscathed. Since then, the northwestern Ontario economy has been going strong, so the folks within driving distance of Minnesota have money to spend.
 
Canadians also take advantage of a favorable exchange rate. For some time, the value of the U.S. and Canadian dollars has been at par or nearly so. Nearly all goods and services are cheaper in the U.S., so a Minnesota excursion is a bargain. Last year, the Canadian government raised the dollar value of purchased goods Canadians can bring back from the U.S. without paying a duty—creating even further incentive to head south.
 
Economics answers another question I was asked at the show: Why are so few Americans now vacationing in Canada? As recently as a decade ago, many anglers from Minnesota and other Midwest states made at least one annual fishing trip to Canada. Now, far fewer fishermen are heading north of the border. Living near the border, I’ve also noticed my friends and neighbors are less likely to go north for day trips or getaways.
 
Some folks say the slowdown in American tourism is related to additional security measures at customs in the aftermath of 9/11, specifically the need for a passport to enter the United States as well as the Canadian denial of entry of Americans who have DUI convictions. While negative experiences with customs agents are a travel deterrent for some folks, a bigger reason is likely the high cost of everything Canadian. Currently, a gallon of gasoline in Thunder Bay costs just over $5. Prices in restaurants, grocery stores and other places tourists are likely to shop are noticeably higher, too. In the past, Americans benefited from a favorable exchange rate that extended their purchasing power. Now, when considering a Canadian trip, they may think first about the additional expense and secondly about the possibility of a hassle at the border. It seems likely some anglers have decided they were better off staying home.
 
Another factor affecting fishing travel is an aging demographic. A fly-in camp outfitter told me his client base has stayed more or less the same, with past customers returning annually. However, those loyal customers are growing older. A new generation of younger anglers isn’t showing up to take their place.
 
What hasn’t changed is the quality of Canadian fishing. Restrictive bag limits enacted during the past decade or so to protect fisheries are making a difference. Generally speaking, the lower bag limits allow you to come off the water with enough fish for dinner, but prevent you from heading home with a cooler packed with filets.
 
I spoke with fisheries scientist Jon George, who recently retired from a 38-year career with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Jon is well-known among Minnesota and Ontario steelhead anglers for a long-term study he initiated to learn more about this popular Lake Superior sport fish. He discovered generous bag limits greatly reduce steelhead abundance. Unlike salmon, which die after spawning, steelhead may spawn more than once. Releasing one after you catch it is a way to make an investment in your fishing future, because your personal fish conservation pays a dividend when the steelhead spawns again.
 
From his study and the work of other researchers, Jon is convinced the adoption of catch-and-release fishing regulations led to significant population gains for steelhead and Lake Superior’s native coaster brook trout. Restrictive bag limits for muskies and walleyes have had similar positive effects on inland waters. The upshot is that Ontario still offers the terrific fishing for which it is justly famed. In fact, the fishing across northwestern Ontario is likely better now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. For this fisherman, the exceptional quality of Canadian fishing is worth the extra hassle and expense needed to enjoy it.

Airdate: March 1, 2013


 
Shake it off! by Travis Novitsky

Points North: A Population Collapse Measured in Dog Years

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In the corner of my garage is a large bin overflowing with antlers. Dig through the bin and you’ll find some deer and even caribou antlers, as well as a moose skull or two. But the bone heap is mostly made up of moose antlers, from giant brown paddles to timeworn, gray relics. Moose grow their massive antlers annually, shedding them in early winter after the autumn breeding season. I like to roam the woods in April and May, looking for fallen moose antlers. It’s a great way to add a little adventure to a daily dog walk.

Not so many years ago, I’d find about a dozen moose antlers every year by making daily walks with my dogs. We covered a lot of country, because moose antlers are rarely found along the beaten track. I enjoyed free-ranging antler hunts as much as spring trout fishing—something my trout-fishing friends couldn’t understand. While I saved a few antlers for myself, most were sold to a local fur buyer. Fresh, high quality moose antlers can fetch upwards of $10 per pound. At the time there was even a market for moose skulls and heavy leg bones, which were much easier to find then antlers. I hauled home enough skulls and bones to easily cover the gasoline expense of my antler excursions.

My antler hunts rarely took me more than 20 miles from my North Shore home, because there were lots of moose and endless room to roam. During the heyday of modern timber harvest in the 1980s and ‘90s, clear-cut areas quickly became giant moose pastures filled with new saplings and brush—favorite winter browse. Moose were so abundant that the new twigs on aspen and birch saplings were pruned by browsing every winter. It took years for these heavily browsed trees to grow above the reach of a hungry moose. In deep snow years, the moose browsed on balsam firs, eliminating all of the lower boughs. Where you saw evidence of browsing was a good place to look for antlers.

Finding a moose antler was never easy. Often I walked for miles, following moose paths as wide as sidewalks through the brush, hoping to happen upon an antler. Moose antlers, like gold, are where you find them. It feels pretty good when you do. Occasionally, I’d find a pair of antlers dropped simultaneously. Usually, I’d find just one antler and then search, often fruitlessly, for the other. Once in a while I’d hit a bonanza and stagger out of the woods carrying three or four heavy antlers. Days like that keep you coming back for more.

Moose encounters were so frequent that I took them for granted, whither along the roadside or out in the woods. Often, I’d hear a moose crashing away unseen in heavy forest cover after being startled by me or my dogs. Quiet trout-fishing sessions at remote beaver ponds were frequently interrupted by visiting moose. While out for walks, my husky-shepherd Abby occasionally brought moose to bay, barking excitedly as if to say, “Come quick, I’ve got a moose!” Extracting her from such situations was always interesting. One time she treed a mother bear and three cubs, then led me to a nearby antler freshly chewed by said bears.

To my knowledge, Abby was never attacked by a moose even though she pressed her luck with these unpredictable animals. I’ve been charged on three occasions, twice by rut-crazed bulls and one time by an ornery cow. Once, a fat aspen was all that stood between me and a wild-eyed bull that smashed into the tree at full force. It wasn’t an experience I care to repeat.

Nearly everyone who visits our Hovland home wants to see a moose, a request that was once fairly easy to satisfy with a pick-up truck safari through the backcountry, especially at dawn or dusk. Moose sightings were so consistent along some well-traveled routes, such as State Highway 1 north of Finland and the famous Gunflint Trail, that they were a driving hazard.

As a volunteer firefighter, I responded to several moose-vehicle accidents along Highway 61. One time, a conservation officer gave the road-killed moose to our fire department. It was a warm June evening, so we wasted no time processing the animal, using my garage as a butcher shop. We hoisted it with a skid-steer loader, skinned and quartered it, then completed the butchering, finishing the whole task in about four hours. The next morning, my neighbor, Tim, came to retrieve his loader from my driveway. The bucket was still raised.
Beneath it, the moose head dangled from a chain. Tim and I paused to take in this grim scene.

“We had to let the neighbors know we scored,” he said.

I was lucky enough to participate in Minnesota moose hunts. In 1989, I shot a nice bull southwest of Greenwood Lake in Cook County. At the time, that area offered the best moose hunting in the state and possibly in North America. On pre- and post-hunt scouting trips that fall, I saw four other trophy bulls within a mile of where I made the kill. A decade later, in 1999, I accompanied my father when he killed a bull north of Hovland, the crowning achievement of his hunting life. Moose were still abundant, because we saw four bulls and a cow during two days of hunting.

We didn’t know it then, but we were reaching the end of the good old days. When I go out looking for moose antlers now, it’s difficult, even in good habitat, to find the browsed brush and droppings left behind by wintering moose. I haven’t added any new antlers to the pile in my garage for at least three years. While I used to take moose sightings for granted, now I feel darned lucky to see them once or twice a year. In fact, most of the moose I’ve seen in recent years were being registered by successful hunters at the hardware store across from my Grand Marais office. I haven’t scared up a moose while grouse hunting or dog walking for several years.

For many years, moose were important to me, not only for my antler-hunting hobby, but as a constant in my life on the North Shore. While it seems like wistful nostalgia to write about the moose that used to be, it is sobering to realize the population crash occurred within the span of a dog’s life. Abby, my moose-chasing husky-shepherd, is now 15 years old. Sadly the collapse of northeastern Minnesota’s moose herd can be measured in dog years. Although her moose-chasing days are behind her, I hope Abby remembers the good old days, too.

Airdate: February 15, 2013


 
 

Points North: Should Trophy Hunters Show More Restraint?

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Presiding over my office is a set of antlers from a whitetail buck my father killed north of Two Harbors in 1963. Exceptionally wide and symmetrical, the 10-point rack has set a high bar for me. I’ve killed a few nice bucks over the years, but none have carried a better set of antlers than Dad’s. Maybe the bucks were bigger 50 years ago.
 
Newly published research in the Wildlife Society’s Wildlife Monographs shows the size of trophy big game animals throughout North America has decreased during the 100-plus years the Boone and Crockett Club has kept records. A detailed analysis of over 22,000 record book entries found declines in most species. The researchers believe trophies are somewhat smaller than they used to be due to decades of hunting pressure focused on male animals.

Kevin Monteith, a postdoctoral research scientist for the Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Wyoming, conducted the research, along with colleagues from Idaho State University, the University of Montana and the state wildlife agencies in California and Arizona. The researchers—all hunters—analyzed Boone and Crockett entries for North American horned and antlered game species from 1900 to 2008. They found most species popular with hunters, including white-tailed and mule deer, showed long-term declines in horn and antler sizes ranging from about one percent to over three percent.

Some exceptions were lightly-hunted species such as bison and bighorn sheep. Pronghorn, though heavily hunted, often grow their largest horns at relatively young ages and did not show a decline. Rocky Mountain goats, which have horns that are difficult to judge in the field, remained steady. Muskoxen, which greatly expanded their Arctic range, had increased horn sizes.

Further careful analysis ruled out other possible causes for the declines in trophy sizes, including habitat loss and climate change. Although substantially more hunters began entering trophies for record book recognition beginning in the 1950s and 60s, the sizes of the top one-third of entries still showed declines. The researchers found only limited support for a hypothesis that killing the largest trophy animals over time has depleted the gene pool.

Big game animals must live to an old age in order to grow their largest horns or antlers. The researchers believe today’s hunters are killing younger trophy animals, which may have grown bigger headgear had they lived another year or two. Across North America, the demand from hunters for trophy animals somewhat exceeds the available supply.

Whether the declining size of trophy animals predicates a change in management strategies is uncertain, say the researchers. They suggest the declines may be inconsequential compared to the hunting opportunities big game species provide. The dramatic increase in entries occurring since the 1950s also attests to the success of modern wildlife management.

In 1900, the starting point for this research analysis, Congress passed the Lacey Act, which brought an end to commercial market hunting. Big game population levels were at a low point, decimated by market hunting, habitat loss and the transformation of the landscape brought about by settlement and industrialization. Within that context, it is a wonder we have any hunting today, much less trophy hunting. The 20th Century was truly the century of wildlife in North America, as scientific management, coupled with land and water conservation, restored big game populations and allowed them to thrive. Regulated, public hunting was the cornerstone of this process, providing management funding through license fees and a core constituency to support wildlife programs.

The restoration of horned and antlered big game was often accomplished by protecting the females of the species so they could produce more offspring and increase the population. Harvesting males has less overall effect on the population, because they may mate with more than one female. For decades, bucks-only harvest regulations were common. Even today, when regulations often encourage the harvest of non-antlered females, many hunters prefer to kill bucks.

Across North America, big game populations are thriving and big game hunters are more numerous than they’ve ever been. Arguably, the last 20 years have been the best of times for big game hunters, which has led to a surging interest—some would call it obsession—in trophy hunting. Many hunters now demand wildlife managers manipulate big game harvests to produce more trophy-sized males.

A Minnesota example of trophy management is the antler point restriction enacted in the Southeast, which is up for evaluation and possible reauthorization by the State Legislature this year. During the past three hunting seasons, hunters could only harvest bucks with at least four points on one antler. The restriction is intended to allow bucks to reach maturity before being legal to harvest and thus create a population with more large-antlered bucks. Although it hasn’t been universally popular with hunters in the Southeast, many believe it has been effective at increasing the number of bigger bucks in a heavily-hunted population.

Monteith’s research indicates that while an antler point restriction may create more nice bucks, it won’t necessarily result in more truly trophy deer. Heavy hunting pressure remains a reality. Most hunters who see a legal buck are likely to shoot it, even though the buck might grow even larger antlers if it was allowed to live longer. If that is so, hunting regulations alone aren’t likely to produce true trophies in public hunting areas.

If hunters want to see and perhaps harvest outstanding record book trophies, they’ll have to show restraint far beyond what is required in hunting regulations. For instance, Minnesota muskie have a high minimum size—now 48 inches on most lakes—and a limit of one to ensure more fish reach trophy sizes. Many anglers choose to catch, photograph and release legal muskies, including fish so large they may challenge the state record, because they believe the continuation of high-quality fishing is more important than hanging trophy fish on the wall.
 
Maybe it’s time for hunters to adopt a similar ethic of restraint.

You can’t shoot a trophy animal and then let it go. But you can make the decision not to squeeze the trigger in the first place. While I’m not suggesting the average Joe pass up the opportunity of a lifetime to shoot a nice buck, Monteith’s research seems to suggest that obsessive trophy hunters may be their own worst enemies. Perhaps if they killed fewer trophies, all hunters would have a little better chance to kill a truly outstanding animal.
 
After all, as Dad used to say, “You can’t eat antlers.”

Airdate: February 8, 2013


 
 

Out There: Rudolph, the red-tape reindeer

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If a reintroduction effort in the 1990s hadn’t been scuttled, northern Minnesota would now be home to many sleighs’ worth of reindeer.
 
So says Dr. John Pastor, professor of biology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “This would have been a model study on how to reintroduce a native species to an area where it had been extirpated.“
 
In the 1990s, Pastor was part of a committee pursuing the possibility of returning caribou—also called reindeer—to the state. The committee comprised a grab bag of government agencies and one nongovernmental organization.
 
After 18 months of research, the committee had a plan.
 
Tastes like regional extinction
Let’s back up for a minute. Where did all of our caribou go?
 
It’s the too-familiar conservation story of not knowing what you’ve got till it’s gone. Woodland caribou once abounded in the bogs and boreal forests of northern Minnesota.
 
Then, in the 1800s, likely due to a combination of overhunting, habitat loss, and Parelaphostrongylus tenuis (brainworm) spread by white-tailed deer, the caribou population nosedived.
 
“The last native herd, near Isabella, was actually shot to provide meat for a logging camp,” said Pastor.
 
Since the 1930s, there have been only sporadic caribou sightings, the most recent confirmed of which was in 1981. The closest most Minnesotans have ever come to a caribou is a coffee shop.
 
Woodland caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are cervids, smaller than moose but bigger than whitetails. Various subspecies of caribou inhabit the world’s northerly regions.
 
Adults can weigh 600 lbs and stand five feet at the shoulder. Their distinctive antlers swoop skyward like giant, velvet apostrophes.
 
These hooves are made for walkin’
Caribou are known for their wanderlust. Many caribou herds migrate from winter to summer feeding grounds, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles. 
 
Scientists’ misunderstanding of caribou migration actually doomed an earlier attempt at reintroducing them—caribou, not scientists—in Minnesota.
 
In the 1970s, the DNR studied the possibility and found that the northeastern corner of the state had the right habitat.
 
Unfortunately, people at the time labored under the misapprehension that caribou caught as adults and released elsewhere would always migrate “home.” (This theory has since been proven false.) So it was thought that, to establish a new native herd, the DNR would first need to rear caribou from infancy at the reintroduction site.
 
Lacking the funds to launch a caribou nursery, the DNR abandoned the effort.
 
Enter the Duluth Safari Club. In 1988, the Duluth Safari Club—a group of big-game enthusiasts—proposed another reintroduction effort. 
 
The Safari Club enlisted partners, provided a substantial amount of funding, disbanded, and re-formed as the North Central Caribou Corporation, or NCCC.
 
While the NCCC’s board of directors was staffed largely by representatives of government agencies, the project included input from the Izaak Walton League, the Sportsman’s League, Friends of the Boundary Waters, and the University of Minnesota. The DNR and the Forest Service played substantial roles.
 
“The big question was, ‘Could we successfully reintroduce caribou?’” said Pastor.
 
Ask the neighbours
To find the answer, the group began an extensive scoping study. Research was carried out by the Forest Service, the University of Minnesota, and the Natural Resources Research Institute.
 
Researchers examined possible reintroduction sites for topography and deer and wolf concentration. Too many predators or whitetail-carried brainworm could wipe out a nascent caribou herd.
 
A 1,300-square-kilometer area near Little Saganaga Lake in the eastern sector of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and southeastern Quetico Provincial Park was identified as the most suitable site for reintroduction. The runner-up site was near Isabella, home of the last native herd.
 
The scoping study addressed other logistical questions as well—such as how to get some caribou to reintroduce.
 
The answer: Ask the neighbors. Er, neighbours.
 
Specifically, the plan called for the agency overseeing the actual reintroduction to ask the Ontario government for surplus caribou from the Slate Islands. Those caribou would be airlifted to the Little Sag site and released.
 
White paper, red tape
In 1998, the NCCC published a paper detailing its research, progress and plan. But when it came time to take the next steps, the DNR and Superior National Forest balked. Political pressure may have been a factor.
 
Whatever the explanation, the reintroduction effort stalled. Then the committee chair died unexpectedly. Then one of the staunchest reintroduction proponents retired.
 
Other committee members moved on. The NCCC has been defunct for years.
 
Pastor put it colloquially: “The DNR got cold feet… and it all fell apart.”
 
Dr. Peter Jordan, associate professor  emeritus in the department of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology at the University of Minnesota, was first author on the NCCC paper.
 
Reached by email, Jordan confirmed that no movement on reintroduction has happened in over a decade. “It’s a dead issue.”
 
Which Pastor thinks is too bad. “I think if we had gone through with it we would have a viable caribou herd in Minnesota right now.”
 
It’s hard to say for sure whether transplanted woodland caribou would take root. We will probably never know.
 
Sorry, Rudolph.

Airdate: February 5, 2013


 
 

Points North: In the Grip of Fishing Fever, Anything Seems Possible

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I'm not sure what arrived first, the fishing line or the fever. A few days ago, I noticed my preparations for the coming spring are well under way. UPS delivered a box filled with spools of hard-to-find fishing line. Then a friend emailed with questions about a fly rod he is building for me. I traded emails with another friend about turkey hunting.

Thinking spring in January may seem a little strange to some folks, but it happens to me every year. I even think there is a scientific explanation for those April-May musings. Now, more than a month past the December solstice, the winter sun is gaining strength. Inside of me, something stirs. Rationally, I understand that April is two months away. The mid-May fishing opener--dare I say it--won't arrive for three and a half months. Still, it seems the open water season is just around the corner.

I am not alone, as evidenced by the mountain of tackle catalogs that show up in my mail. Before any fishing lure can catch a fish, it must first hook a fisherman. Thus the retailers make their casts, smug in the knowledge that fishermen, unlike fish, are always biting. In midwinter, when anglers are not paging through catalogs or trolling for tackle on the Internet, they are wandering the aisles of sport shows, dreaming of new boats or fly-in fishing vacations.

I'm happy with my present boat and plan to keep my fishing feet planted firmly on the ground this year. But nevertheless I’m feverish. Generally, I try to take a pragmatic approach to my fishing preparations. I keep track of what was lost or damaged the previous year and make a wish list of tackle and gear to add to my angling arsenal. Never do I acquire everything on my list.

This may be due to the breadth of my fishing interests. Many modern anglers specialize in one or two species, such as muskies or walleyes, or on a method, such as fly-fishing or Great Lakes trolling. I'm more a jack of many trades, enjoying the variety of fishing opportunities available near my North Shore home. My fishing calendar follows a predictable schedule. I start the season fishing for steelhead in rivers, shifting to walleyes and northerns in lakes when the general season opens. I also have a fondness for fly-fishing, especially for trout. In midsummer, I troll for salmon on Lake Superior.

The tough part about having disparate angling interests is finding enough time to do justice to all of them. I set a personal goal to land at least 50 trout and salmon topping 16 inches during a fishing season, knowing that I’ll need to spend plenty of quality time on the water to do so. The bulk of my “goal fish” are Lake Superior steelhead, lake trout and salmon, but my annual tally usually includes some whopper brook trout, a handful of hefty browns and lake trout from inland waters. Sometimes it includes salmon from the Pacific Ocean or cutthroat trout from the Rockies. The specific catches don’t really matter. If I hit the goal of 50, I’ve had a good fishing year. I don’t set a similar goal for walleyes, but my urge to catch them is driven by a healthy appetite for fresh filets.

Last summer, I made some changes in life that allowed me more fishing time—something that previously was in short supply. While I wasn’t transformed into Huckleberry Finn, I was able to make a few more casts. Just how many more became apparent last August, when I smugly decided to forgo trolling on Lake Superior, because I’d already caught enough trout and salmon. I didn’t stop fishing, mind you. My angling attention just shifted to walleyes.

I’m hoping to have some extra fishing time available this summer, but am unsure how I will use it. Back in the good old days—when gasoline was less than $2.50 per gallon—my fishing forays were often to destinations anywhere from 60 to more than 100 miles from home. When the weather was right and the fish were biting, I went fishing on many weekday evenings, often driving 50 miles one way just to cast flies to hungry trout during an hour-long mayfly hatch. These days, I stick closer to home, because it’s hard to justify the gasoline expense for just an hour or two of fishing.

Living near the border, I used to make frequent day excursions into Canada, another form of fishing fun that has become costly.  While I haven’t given up on fishing in the wondrous Nipigon region, overnight trips, and fewer of them, are now the norm. Last summer, I contemplated running out to western Montana with my pick-up camper for a week of fly-fishing, but backed off after calculating the fuel costs.  Maybe, with better planning, I’ll make it out there this year. When you dream about fishing in midwinter, just about anything seems possible.

Airdate: February 1, 2013


 
 

Points North: Should Governor Dayton Convene a Winter Tourism Summit?

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There once was a saying in northern Minnesota that tourist towns "rolled up the sidewalks after Labor Day," because tourism came to a grinding halt once school began in September. During the last 30 years or so, tourism evolved into a year-round business as people discovered winter sports like snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, ice-fishing and more, and as tourism communities developed the amenities and services to accommodate winter visitors.

While winter tourism will never equal the summer vacation season, many northern Minnesota businesses now remain open year-round to meet the needs of winter tourists. In many northern communities, the business activity associated with winter tourism delivers a welcome shot of cash to the local economy. The extra money is especially welcome these days due to the downturn in logging, long a mainstay of the north woods economy.

But winter tourism is in trouble, too. Don't believe me? Try scheduling a dog sled race or a cross-country ski event that requires a snowy landscape. The venerable John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was recently postponed due to a lack of snow...on the North Shore...in January.

Not so long ago, northern Minnesota was a place where you took winter for granted. A couple of weeks ago, I went walking with the dogs on an April-like, 50-degree January day as melt water tumbled down frozen creeks and snow disappeared from the woods. While the temperature dropped far below freezing the following day, all that remained of winter were frozen puddles, brown dirt and snow crusted like concrete. My backyard looked the same as it did in November.

Midwinter thaws and warm spells are the new normal, as are mild, extended falls and early springs. Last year, winter came to an abrupt halt when the snow melted in March. Lakes across the state set records for early ice-outs. Some state legislators even suggested advancing the spring fishing opener by a week to give northern tourist operators a chance to recover some of the business they lost to a short, snowless winter. The early fishing opener never came to a vote, but the idea of looking for ways to recover lost winter tourism revenues demands further, serious consideration. 
 
We live in a state where winter recreational opportunities not only attract tourists but also define many Minnesotans' lifestyles. Many of us spend ample spare time and money on ice fishing, snowmobiling or cross-country skiing. We’ve developed a sizeable infrastructure to support these activities, including extensive networks of groomed snowmobile and ski trails. Across the state, thousands of people are employed by winter sports companies ranging from snowmobile or fish house manufacturers to ski shops and tackle retailers.  Until now, all of the above has been dependent on cold and snow lasting from December through March.
  
Now, due to the warming realities of a rapidly changing climate, a good, old-fashioned Minnesota winter is just that: old-fashioned. Nowadays, we cross our fingers and hope we get enough snow and cold to make do. And that’s a problem. It’s hard to operate a winter-based business when you can’t count on cooperative weather. 
 
If this winter and last are any indication, we’ve reached a climate crossroads for winter recreation. In both years, we’ve hardly received enough snow across most of the state to allow for consistent grooming of snowmobile and ski trails. Midwinter warm-ups have destroyed trail conditions. About the only consistent winter recreation has been ice fishing and even there, early and late ice conditions were dangerously iffy.

Looking forward, it seems reasonable to expect winters will become progressively milder with less snow. Lakes will continue to make ice, but it isn’t likely to become as thick or last as long as it once did. Wimpy winters offer fewer opportunities for traditional winter activities. So where does that leave winter tourism or the substantial manufacturing and retail economy devoted to winter sports? How long will groomed ski and snowmobile trails remain viable, especially since trail maintenance is often funded and accomplished by local volunteers?

Answering questions like these is necessary, but not easy. To my knowledge, no one is even asking them. Maybe that’s because doing so forces one to consider a heretofore unthinkable future for Minnesota—a future where traditional winters no longer exist. We’ve seen some scientific projections about the possible effects of climate change on our forests and our agriculture, but those consequences still remain comfortably distant. In contrast, the decline in winter tourism is happening here and now. 
 
It’s time for someone to start thinking about the unthinkable. Businesses that depend on winter for all or part of their income are struggling with consecutive poor years and a very uncertain future. I doubt that many of them are seeking sympathy or subsidies, but they certainly need help finding a path to move forward in a warming world. 
 
What we really need is a leader to recognize the issue of waning winter tourism and to rally the troops to address the decline. The obvious choice is Governor Mark Dayton, a man who doesn’t duck difficult issues and has a self-described fondness for northern Minnesota. The governor can’t wave a magic wand and make it snow, but he is in a unique position to call statewide attention to a pressing economic issue—one many northern communities can’t afford to ignore.
 
Perhaps it is time for Governor Dayton to convene a summit on tourism and climate change. Such an event would raise awareness of declining snow sports and serve as a launch pad for addressing our winter woes. It is unlikely the summit would lead to any simple solutions, but it could initiate a statewide, strategic effort to transition winter tourism into a warming future. We need to start that transition before winter melts away.


 
 

Points North: Despite Storm, Red Tape, Trophy Lodge Plans 2013 Opening

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If you head south from Duluth on State Highway 23, you pass through a tiny corner of Wisconsin. Crossing the St. Louis River at Fond du Lac you spend 15 seconds driving through the Badger State before re-entering Minnesota. This slice of land is an orphan of geography, because you can’t get there from Wisconsin. It is also the location of the venerable Mont du Lac Ski Area.
 
Built on the steep, red-clay hills that rise up from the river, Mont du Lac opened in 1948, making it one of the oldest ski areas in the region. A new era began in 2008 for Mont du Lac when it was purchased by Larry and Donna Pulkrebec, owners of Field Logic, an archery and sporting goods manufacturer located in Superior, Wisc. They embarked on an ambitious plan to revamp the area’s recreational opportunities and to build a new, hilltop lodge.
 
Those plans were coming to fruition, says general manager Mike Cameron, when a massive rainstorm last June unleashed a torrential flood that wiped out Duluth and nearby Jay Cooke State Park. The storm caused about 50 landslides on Mont du Lac’s clay hills, including 15 that destroyed vital portions of the ski runs.  Since the storm occurred, Mont du Lac has been an orphan of disaster relief.
 
“Minnesota filed with FEMA for immediate assistance,” says Cameron, “but Wisconsin did not file for federal relief.”
 
Working with several state agencies in Wisconsin, Mont du Lac was encouraged to submit $1.6 million in storm recovery expenses.  Wisconsin officials told the ski area to stop working to repair the storm damage, because doing so would disqualify them for funding.
 
“We were told we were at the top of the list for available funds,” Cameron says.
 
So they delayed work, even though they worried about losing the growing season that would allow grass to become established on newly restored slopes. They couldn’t get any answers from state officials as to what repair work they could do. What they were told, via letter, is that federal funds might be available, but, since it was an election year, the money wouldn’t be allocated until after the election. A month later, they received a second letter, same as the first, with three additional words. Funds would be allocated after the election—if at all. Now, in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy, they are less hopeful of receiving disaster aid. So far, the only funding Mont du Lac has received was $10,000 from the Minnesota-based Northland Foundation to repair the race start location at the top of the ski hill.
 
Summer was waning when Mont du Lac finally put the repair crew to work, leaving little time to germinate grass seed. Focusing on repairing damage to the ski hill, the crew worked with a bulldozer and cables to pull apart rat nests of erosion debris bound in red clay. Light poles, pieces of snow guns and toppled trees were dragged out piece by piece. Innumerable truckloads of fill were hauled in to restore the slopes. As the work progressed, the ski hill came into shape. Snow guns were put into service as giant lawn sprinklers to water grass seed.
 
“There were many days when the amount of clay clinging to your boots made it hard to lift your feet,” Cameron says.  “We had to spray each other down with a hose at the end of the day.”
 
The ski hill opened for business when winter arrived. Then they returned attention to Mont du Lac’s big project—the completion of the massive Trophy Lodge perched on top of the ski hill. The new lodge must be seen to be believed, and appears destined to become a regional landmark. Serving as a ski lodge with a bar, restaurant and great room, the structure also contains VIP accommodations and living space for the Pulkrebecs.
 
Imagine a building where the main timbers are built of British Columbia Douglas firs three feet in diameter and extensive stonework, including a massive fireplace, made from stone imported from Montana. Huge windows offer stunning views of the Jay Cooke State Park and the St. Louis River to Fond du Lac Dam. You even can see all the way down the river valley to the Duluth Harbor, more than 10 miles away. When complete, the lodge will include two indoor waterfalls more than 40 feet high. The staircase, window frames and doors are all made of black walnut.
 
Built atop a mountain of clay, the building has been designed to last. The structure rests on 210 seven-inch steel pilings, all driven at least 60 feet deep.  Precipitation runoff from the building is collected and piped to the bottom of the hill, where it will be used to water a garden. The lodge has a geothermal heating system, with a ski hill serving as the geothermal field. The three-level geothermal system will heat and cool the superstructure for less than $5,000 annually.  
 
Trophy Lodge will house the Pulkrebecs’ collection of hunting trophies, obtained during 40 years of hunting. One of those trophies will be a full-sized mounted giraffe. The lodge will be open to the public.
 
“The idea is to give everyday folks the opportunity to see such a grand building and what it contains, and still be able to buy a $3 beer,” Cameron said.
 
Eventually, anglers will be able to enjoy Trophy Lodge, too. Mont du Lac owns frontage on the St. Louis River and is working with the Wisconsin DNR to get appropriate permits for a docking facility. Anglers sampling the river’s walleye fishing will be able to pull up at the dock and be shuttled to the lodge for lunch or dinner.
 
Prior to the storm, Trophy Lodge was scheduled to open in 2012. I toured the unfinished building last September. Insulation was being blown in last week, so the interior finishing work will soon begin. The lodge will open in stages during 2013, beginning with the bar and restaurant.

Airdate: January 18, 2013