2005 was a busy year on the state and local outdoors scene. In the lakes area land use issues continue to dominate, a trend that is expected to carry into 2006. But we also saw another irruption of great gray owls, the return of a popular cross country ski race to Camp Ripley, a cormorant culling operation on Leech Lake, a duck rally at the Capitol and the most liberal firearms deer season in state history.
Here's our annual look back at some of the top stories featured in North Country over the past year.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
The year ends quietly. Peaceful waters flowed through Fritz Loven Park on a recent winter day as Stony Brook meandered between frozen banks.
Land-use inventory created
In January the Brainerd Lakes Area Conservation Collaborative published a blueprint for where it believes development should take place in the lakes area.
The 74-page inventory has 41 maps depicting land use, cover types, public and private ownerships, forest types, lake types, land susceptible to erosion, land with inherent value that should be conserved, land that could be developed, priority conservation areas and open space networks.
Crow Wing County's population is expected to exceed 100,000 by 2035, making this blueprint an important first step toward saving the character of a region that's changing rapidly.
"We're still together and still working," Phil Hunsicker of 1,000 Friends of Minnesota said of the BLACC effort.
BLACC's maps were used to guide the new county parks, trails and open space master plan. The county board has used the maps to guide zoning ordinance revisions. Bonnie Finnerty, county planner, is expected to use the maps to help create a future land-use map for the county. BLACC will use the maps to create a new easement brochure for people interested in placing private property under permanent easements. The city of Baxter has referenced the maps several times in its revised comprehensive plan.
Great gray owls invade area
for second straight winter
Cold weather in January brought another irruption of great gray owls from Canada into north-central Minnesota, where they could easily be seen by anybody driving rural roads in Crow Wing and Aitkin counties. It was the second straight winter in which owls invaded north-central Minnesota in search of voles and other small rodents, their primary source of food.
Unfortunately, some owls were hit by cars as they careened in low flight across rural roads. Dispatch columnist Andrea Lee Lambrecht reported that between Nov. 1 and Dec. 14 the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota had treated 23 great gray owls and two northern hawk owls.
Michelle McDowell, wildlife biologist at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, said in October that at least 700 great grays died last winter in various accidents.
Of the owl irruption, McDowell said, "It probably won't happen again. But look for boreal owls and snowy owls this winter."
Governor's Cup returns
to Camp Ripley
After a three-year absence, the Governor's Cup cross country ski race returned to Camp Ripley in 2005.
One-hundred-fifty freestyle skiers and a handful of classical diehards from throughout Minnesota hit the Camp Ripley trails on March 5. Snow conditions weren't ideal, as warm temperatures in the days before the race made for a slick course, but the event succeeded in helping the Little Falls High School cross country ski team compete for another year.
The team was in danger of folding due to lack of funds. The team is sanctioned but not funded by Little Falls High School. The Flyers needed $11,700 to compete this winter. The Governor's Cup and parental support succeeded in raising that amount and the future is bright.
"We have 24 kids on the team, up from 18 last year," said Terry Wasland, head coach. "We've skied three races so far. We're a little thin on the boys side, but the girls have done real well, finishing third at the Brainerd Invitational and third at the (St. Cloud) Apollo Invitational."
This year's Governors Cup is scheduled for Jan. 28. "We're hoping that by having it in middle of season we can get a few more skiers," Wasland said.
Cormorants culled on Leech Lake
After years of declining walleye populations on one of Minnesota's most popular walleye lakes, the DNR leveled the blame on cormorants, a fish-eating bird whose numbers had grown to an estimated 10,000 around the lake. Each cormorant can eat up to a pound of fish per day.
"We estimate they ate in excess of one million pounds of fish last year," said Henry Drewes, DNR fisheries manager in Bemidji.
A culling operation began in May. Federal sharpshooters used air rifles to kill about 3,000 cormorants.
"The operation was very successful," Drewes said. "We reduced the population from 10,000 to 4,000 birds by the end of the summer. Fewer birds came back to nest and others were displaced by the culling operation."
More culling will take place this year, Drewes said, though details have not been finalized. A cormorant diet study will also continue. Stomach contents have been analyzed and it was found that the cormorants' diet has been mostly perch. But Drewes said very few young-of-the-year walleyes were available in Leech Lake last summer. The 2005 spawn was very good and the DNR found the fourth highest sample of young-of-the-year walleyes since 1983.
Pillsbury, Foothills state forests
get new OHV classifications
The ongoing and often contentious debate on how and where OHVs should be allowed to operate in two area forests was resolved in March, when Pillsbury and Foothills state forests were closed to OHVs.
The new classification took effect July 1. OHVs are not allowed in either forest, though vehicles licensed for operation on public roads are allowed on forest roads and minimum maintenance roads.
The two forests were the first to be reclassified under a legislative order that said the DNR must evaluate all 54 state forests and balance motorized and non-motorized recreation. The process of evaluating the remaining 52 forests is expected to be completed in 2008.
Ducks, wetlands and clean water enthusiasts rally at the Capitol
On April 1 an estimated 5,000 people converged on the State Capitol for the first Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water rally.
Many were dressed in camouflage, squawked on duck calls and carried signs of protest. Represented at the rally were 35 conservation groups that support fishing, wildlife and environmental interests. It was an unprecedented coalition. Ducks Unlimited pledged $30 million for shallow lake restoration in Minnesota.
Dave Zentner, rally organizer, said the coalition was committed to establishing an annual wetlands summit that would produce a duck recovery plan. The first such summit is scheduled for February. Another rally at the Capitol is being planned for later in the spring.
Deer hunters get more options
Record numbers of whitetail deer in Minnesota prompted the DNR to create the most liberal hunting season in state history.
Firearms hunters got a two-day antlerless season in October in the Twin Cities area and northwestern Minnesota. In a deer zone realignment, permit areas 401 through 409 became part of Zone 2. Permit areas 205, 211, 214, 283 and 284 became part of Zone 1. A new metro deer zone was created and hunters in that zone got a 23-day season.
Hunters were allowed to tag deer on both their regular archery and regular firearms licenses. In the past you could take a deer by bow or by gun but not both. You were allowed just one buck, however.
Look for more changes to the deer hunting framework in 2006, perhaps even the creation of zones with some type of antler-point restriction.
Camp Ripley hosts first
DAV turkey hunt
The disabled veterans deer hunts at Camp Ripley have been a popular event for years, drawing thousands of hunters who otherwise would not have a chance to hunt deer.
In 2005 disabled veterans got the chance to talk turkey when Camp Ripley hosted its first-ever turkey hunt. It took place in May. Nineteen hunters bagged 11 birds, the biggest weighing 26.5 pounds. All but one of the turkeys was a mature tom.
Another DAV turkey hunt is planned for this spring.
Crow Wing County bans
permanent deer stands
Crow Wing County banned permanent deer stands on county-managed land, becoming the first county in Minnesota to do so.
The new law took effect Aug. 1. It isn't known how many permanent deer stands are on county land, but the number will decline in the coming years as foresters remove stands while logging the land. It's hoped that many of the stands will be removed by the people who constructed them.
Crow Wing County Land Commissioner Tom Cowell said hunters' attitudes about permanent stands will change over time and that other counties will implement bans. "It would be advantageous if we all were on the same page," Cowell said.
VINCE MEYER, outdoors editor, can be reached at 855-5862
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