Fisheries, wildlife managers in North Dakota, Minnesota watch and wait for spring

Spring's late arrival is weighing on everyone who enjoys spending time outdoors, but it's even more of a drag for fisheries and wildlife managers. Normally, spring work such as electrofishing surveys, collecting fish eggs for stocking programs an...

Ice fishing in April
Open water anglers and ice fishermen fished the same part of Six-Mile Bay of Devils Lake in April 2011. Late as that was, this year's ice-out is on track to be even later, and the late arrival of spring is having an impact on the work fisheries and wildlife crews normally do this time of year. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

Spring's late arrival is weighing on everyone who enjoys spending time outdoors, but it's even more of a drag for fisheries and wildlife managers.

Normally, spring work such as electrofishing surveys, collecting fish eggs for stocking programs and controlled burns to enhance wildlife habitat are in full swing.

Not this year.

"Instead of lifting nets, I'm doing management plans, getting more of my winter's work done because it's still winter," said Randy Hiltner, northeast district fisheries supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Devils Lake. "The guys are tying up trap nets and slowly getting things prepared in the unlikely event the ice ever melts."

In northern Minnesota, fisheries crews are waiting to launch their annual spring electro-fishing assessment on the Rainy River. The Department of Natural Resources has conducted the survey to sample large, spawning-stock walleyes since the early 1980s.


According to Phil Talmage, area fisheries supervisor for the DNR in Baudette, Minn., the river, which flows from Rainy Lake to Lake of the Woods, now is open past Baudette, but water temperatures aren't warm enough to attract walleyes in numbers to their spawning areas. Electrofishing typically begins when the water temperature hits the mid-40s, he said; as of Thursday, the river temperature remained in the 30s.

At the same time, an ice-out, trap-netting assessment planned for northern pike is on hold because Lake of the Woods is frozen.

"The thing that this does to our operations is all of the work we do right after ice-out could get condensed into a real short period of time," Talmage said. "That's the way this typically goes. We go from not doing any fieldwork to not having enough people to get everything done in the short amount of time we have to do it."

'Certainly on hold'

Winter's relentless hold also has delayed spring surveys for sharp-tailed grouse in parts of North Dakota, where counts normally would be in full swing. Last weekend's storm, which dumped about 20 inches of snow in Bismarck, will further delay the survey.

That, in turn, will put wildlife crews behind on spring pheasant crowing counts.

"We're certainly on hold," said Stan Kohn, upland game management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck. "The first of May is technically the beginning of pheasant crowing counts. We'd like to have them get the grouse work done first, but it's one of those years where I'm not sure that's going to happen.

"We're going to have some people spending some short nights and long days."


Lingering snow cover also isn't conducive to the prescribed burning wildlife managers like to do in the spring before vegetation turns green. A key tool for grassland managers, controlled fire destroys invasive and woody vegetation, enhancing habitat for all prairie critters.

"We'd be in burn season here by now," said John Williams, regional wildlife manager for the DNR in Bemidji. "We're still another week out before any real thawing, and that's really going to push things."

On a good year, Williams said, DNR crews can burn as many as 20,000 acres in the region, which covers all of northwest Minnesota south to Glenwood, Minn., in the west-central part of the state.

"We're going to have a compressed burning season," Williams said. "We will have to burn quick and often, and even on a good year, you're limited to days you can burn so we won't be burning as often, that I'm sure of."

Wildlife impacts

The delayed spring also is taking a toll on wildlife. Kohn of the Game and Fish Department said the impact of last weekend's storm on pheasants won't be known until the snow melts. In northwest Minnesota, Williams said he received a report of a newborn fawn and its mother that died in the last snowstorm.

It's early for fawning, Williams said, but not unprecedented.

"Thinking about everything from songbirds to pheasants to deer, from a winter that really looked like it wasn't going to amount to a great concern, now we've got some real problems occurring," Williams said. "I've not seen any lethality on songbirds, but you know those guys have to be taking a hit."


Even the springtime tradition of collecting sap for maple syrup is on hold. John Fylpaa, park naturalist at Lake Bemidji State Park, said the sap flows best when daytime temperatures reach the 50s and nights drop below freezing into the 20s.

This year, there's been no shortage of 20s, but 50s have been all but nonexistent.

"As far as I know, nobody in our area is getting very much at all," Fylpaa said. "We just aren't getting that warm-up enough to really get them dripping steadily so it's been real sluggish.

"You can't even call it a drip," he said. "It's more just like an oozing of water out of the trees."

From Bemidji to Devils Lake and points beyond, the amount of snow on the ground will continue to delay spring fish and wildlife work.

Hiltner, the Devils Lake fisheries supervisor, said it's still possible Devils Lake will be ice-free, and they'll be collecting walleye eggs for hatchery programs by May 7, which would be similar to 2011.

Most likely, though, Game and Fish will have to rely on Lake Sakakawea or the Missouri River to supply the bulk of this year's walleye eggs, which also happened in the past. That already happened with pike, which spawn earlier, and Game and Fish collected eggs from Lake Oahe and Rice Lake near the South Dakota border.

"The peak of the walleye spawn on Devils Lake usually is that last week in April," Hiltner said. "I can guarantee you that's not going to be the case this spring."

Fylpaa also offered a guarantee.

"We won't see spring flowers until probably well into May," he said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send email to .

Randy Hiltner
Randy Hiltner

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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