ST. PAUL -- A plan to expand Minnesota waterfowl hunting opportunities — with new seasons, more liberal limits and relaxed rules — will be unveiled soon by the Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has been floating ideas for major changes in duck and goose hunting all winter, measuring public comments and reactions, including on some proposals that have proven controversial.
The DNR is scheduled to release its recommendations based on that public input on March 29, post them online and then hold a virtual town hall meeting on the plans at 6 p.m. April 1.
The DNR says it needs any changes to be ready by the end of April to submit to the federal regulatory body that oversees waterfowl seasons and rules. Under federal flyway guidelines, states can adjust the timing of their duck seasons every five years. The deadline to communicate changes to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for 2021-2024 seasons is May 1.
“We’re evaluating season dates for each (of Minnesota's three duck zones) and considering some additional duck and goose hunting opportunities,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. “We’re looking at potential changes, such as an experimental teal season, based on the public feedback we’ve received so far.”
Cordts said the public response to engage in the potential changes has been good, with more than 4,000 online comments in January and a 30% return rate on the 7,000 questionnaires that were mailed to people who have purchased waterfowl hunting stamps in recent years.
While waterfowl numbers are most closely tied with habitat, and while Minnesota waterfowl habitat has been both declining and degrading in recent decades — thus leading to fewer ducks observed and fewer hunters — the DNR is trying to take action to stem the rapid decline in waterfowl hunters in the state.
In addition to an early teal-only hunting season in September, the DNR has floated multiple changes, including doing away with the 4 p.m. hunting closure for early duck hunting days (hunting would extend to sunset every day) and allowing motorized decoys all season when they are currently banned in early days of the season.
Other possible changes would increase the daily bag limit of Canada geese and allow trolling motors on some waterfowl management area lakes that had been designated motorless for duck hunting.
One other trial balloon on the DNR's list that raised some concern is to allow hunters to shoot three ducks of any legal type with no restriction on subspecies or sex — a so called splash-duck bag limit, ostensibly to make it easier for novice duck hunters who find it hard to identify ducks on the wing.
Cordts said some of the proposals have been popular while others have been panned.
“I’ve said many times that if you put two duck hunters in a blind, you’ll come out with three opinions,’’ he said. “Some topics are very polarizing.”
Fewest hunters, lowest harvest
Critics have said the agency should focus on providing more and better habitat, and thus more ducks, and that will bring more hunters into the fold. But the agency is looking to encourage more people to hunt waterfowl — and keep current hunters active — by providing more days and hours and methods to hunt ducks and geese.
Duck hunting in Minnesota has seen among the steepest declines in participation of all outdoor endeavors. Once among the top states in the nation for total hunters and duck harvest, the number of hunters who buy Minnesota waterfowl stamps each year is less than half what it was in the 1970s.
Just under 80,000 stamps were sold in 2019, half the more than 160,000 sold in the 70s and among the lowest, if not the lowest ever for Minnesota, the DNR noted.
That total blipped up some in 2020 under the pandemic but it’s not clear if that trend will hold.
Hunters harvested an estimated 445,000 ducks in 2019 in Minnesota, again among the lowest totals ever and down from 483,000 in 2018. In the 1970s Minnesota hunters annually bagged more than 1 million ducks.
Join the town hall meeting
Virtual town hall registration details and instructions, as well as proposed season dates and regulations, are available at dnr.state.mn.us/wildlife/waterfowl/index.html.
The meeting starts at 6 p.m. April 1.
Participants must pre-register in order to ask questions via the online chat. The DNR will consider input received during the meeting but people also are encouraged to submit their complete comments online between March 29 and April 11.