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NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS: Weather is wild card for hunting, fishing in 2011

Looking ahead to 2011 in the outdoors world is kind of like assessing the preseason prospects of your favorite sports team. We kind of have an idea of what to expect, but unpredictable variables such as major storms, timely rains, extended dry periods or injuries can make a big difference in the final outcome.

While I can't yet guarantee that 2011 will be better or worse than last year, I can predict that North Dakota again will produce a limit of mostly good hunting and fishing memories, given rather favorable expectations for most of our popular game species.

For starters, even in a cautious assessment we can look for good things from waterfowl, considering wetland conditions from last fall and prospects for good snow runoff this spring.

Snow geese, Canada geese and ducks are at or near historic population highs. Especially with resident Canada geese and snow geese, wildlife managers are trying new options to reduce or just slow expansion of these populations.

While deer numbers are down some from a couple of years ago, compared with 20 or 30 years ago, today's population stacks up pretty well and still offers opportunity for just about everyone who wants to hunt deer.

Actually, the State Game and Fish Department intended to reduce deer numbers over the past few years. While that occurred, today's statewide population is about where Game and Fish would like to maintain it, though some areas have fewer deer than desirable and some have more than enough.

Looking ahead, here's hoping for winter to ease up and exit sooner rather than later, so the deer population is not overly stressed.

The state's fisheries also have a positive outlook, as they have benefited greatly from plentiful moisture the past two years. Greg Power, Game and Fish fisheries chief, said the department now manages 340 lakes for fishing, which is a record. As a comparison, the number was 208 in 2000, 180 in 1990, 139 in 1980,and 137 in 1970.

Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River system have seen an influx of water and should continue to recover, though it takes several years for fish to grow to "eater" size, but the water certainly helps. Meanwhile, to the chagrin of many, Devils Lake has not shrunk, but the water and fishery continue to expand with strong walleye, pike and white bass providing excellent prospects for the coming year.

While the early snow means additional water for our lakes this spring, it also generates concern because snow can block sunlight and trigger oxygen depletion in lakes, increasing the potential for winter kill. Once again, an early spring is welcome.

Moderation for the rest of winter also would help pronghorn and prairie chickens, both of which had closed seasons in 2010 and could use a break from snow and spring moisture. Deer and pheasants also would welcome a break from the snow and even average winter temperatures.

Realistically, we're months away from determining how the winter affected the state's wildlife. Weather always is an important variable in determining whether fall populations from one year will go up or down the next year.

Leier is a bioloigst with the Game and Fish Department. Reach him by e-mail: