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Drought, deer diseases make outdoors headlines in 2021

The effects of drought were all-encompassing, it seemed, and the expansion of chronic wasting disease will have a lasting impact on deer hunting and management.

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Pelicans stand on an exposed gravel bar in June 2021 on the Red River near Drayton, North Dakota. Low water levels that affected anglers and boaters on many rivers and lakes were just one of the effects of widespread drought conditions in 2021.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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Drought and new deer diseases expanding into the Red River Valley and northwest Minnesota were two major happenings on the regional outdoors front in 2021. The effects of drought were all-encompassing, it seemed, and the expansion of chronic wasting disease will have a lasting impact on deer hunting and management.

On a positive note, the opening of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel was welcomed by anglers, and fish and game populations held their own, despite the impact of drought.

Here’s a closer look at some of the key outdoors issues and happenings that showed up in the Herald and on its website in 2021:

January

Electronic posting of land was expected to be among the biggest outdoors issues on tap during the 2021 session of the North Dakota Legislature.

Work on the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road was nearing completion, providing vehicle access across lake and land from the south end of Lake of the Woods to the Northwest Angle, a Minnesota exclave that had been inaccessible to tourism by road because of the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel. Reaching the Angle by road requires driving through about 40 miles of Manitoba. The road was open before month's end, and the impact on tourism was immediate.

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A pickup crosses a bridge over a pressure ridge in January 2021 on the Northwest Angle Guest Ice Road. The ice road from the south end of Lake of the Woods to the Northwest Angle made national news last winter for providing wintertime access to the U.S. exclave when the Canadian border remained closed to nonessential travel.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

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Organizers of the Devils Lake Volunteer Fire Department Ice Fishing Tournament canceled the event for the first time in its 37-year history because of unsafe ice conditions at the tournament site. The raffle portion of the big event was conducted virtually.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department confirmed 18 more cases of chronic wasting disease in the state, based on results from deer tested during the 2020 deer season. The new cases brought the confirmed cases of the brain disease fatal to deer, elk and moose to 44 since 2009, when CWD first was detected in North Dakota.

February

Mike DeVries, a Michigan bicycle enthusiast with ties to a North Dakota waterfowl hunting camp, was embarking on a cross-country bike trek from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., to raise money for a UND Game Management Endowment. DeVries ultimately raised $8,000, exceeding his goal of $6,000.

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Mike DeVries dips the back tires of his bicycle into the Pacific Ocean in southern California on Jan. 14, 2021, the first day of his cross-country bicycle trek across the southern U.S. from San Diego to the Atlantic Ocean at St. Augustine, Fla.
Contributed / Mike DeVries

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association announced collections for its Hides for Habitat program were up nearly 17% from 2019. MDHA chapters across the state collected more than 28,000 hides and raised more than $106,000. The Thief River Falls MDHA chapter again led the state, collecting 3,735 hides and raising $17,741.

March

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was offering 780 any-deer nonresident bow tags in 2021. The number available in a given year is 15% of the previous year’s mule deer gun license allocation.

The Red River was ranked No. 4 among the Top 10 fishing destinations in North America by Abu-Garcia, the manufacturer of fishing equipment, in a list of the top 100 fishing destinations the company compiled to mark its 100th anniversary.

Jared Shypkoski of Dickinson, North Dakota, landed a 16.39-pound, 33-inch walleye on the Missouri River south of Bismarck that would be certified as the new state record for the species.

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Jared Shypkoski of Dickinson, N.D., caught a 16.39-pound walleye Saturday, March 13, 2021, on the Missouri River south of Bismarck that was later certified as the new North Dakota state record walleye.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

April

Bighorn sheep numbers in North Dakota set a record in 2020, up 11% from 2019 and 13% above the five-year average, the Game and Fish Department said in reporting results from its 2020 bighorn sheep survey. The survey tallied 322 bighorns, breaking the previous record of 313 set in 2008.

A total of 58,146 North Dakota deer hunters shot an estimated 39,322 deer during the 2020 deer gun season, the Game and Fish Department reported. The tally represents an overall hunter success rate of 68%, the department said.

North Dakota lawmakers approved SB2144, a bill to implement electronic posting as another option for landowners to post their land. Gov. Doug Burgum signed the bill April 28.

May

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced it had received a federal Meadowlark Initiative grant along with several partnering organizations. The grant will offer financial incentives to qualifying producers who implement conservation practices on working lands. As part of the grant, Game and Fish and partners will provide $12 million of “in-kind” funding, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will match that with $10 million, of which $7 million will go directly to North Dakota producers for on-the-ground habitat projects to benefit meadowlarks and other grassland species.

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The western meadowlark is among the North Dakota species that stand to benefit from the Meadowlark Initiative grant.
Contributed/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Anglers on Lake of the Woods logged just over 2.7 million hours of fishing pressure during the winter of 2021, just shy of the record 2.8 million during the winter of 2019-20, the DNR said in reporting results from its winter creel survey on Lake of the Woods.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced it would offer 72,200 licenses for the 2021 deer gun season, an increase of 3,150 tags from 2020.

Terry Steinwand
Terry Steinwand
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Terry Steinwand announced he would retire as director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department on July 31 after 39 years with the department and more than 15 years as director.

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June

Low water levels on the Red River were creating access problems for boaters and anglers downstream from Riverside Dam in Grand Forks.

Results from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 74th annual spring breeding duck survey painted a dim outlook for waterfowl production because of widespread drought conditions.

Henry Drewes, fisheries manager for the DNR’s Northwest Region since 1998, announced plans to retire in August after a 35-year fisheries career.

Henry Drewes
Henry Drewes, longtime regional fisheries manager for the DNR in Bemidji, announced his plans to retire in August 2021.
Contributed / Henry Drewes

More than 7,900 tags remained after the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s deer gun season lottery.

North Dakota spring pheasant crowing counts were similar to 2020, but Game and Fish Department biologists worried extended drought would hamper production.

July

Conditions continued to worsen on the Red River and elsewhere as widespread drought persisted. Red River catfish guide Brad Durick said he’d never seen the river this low in his 14 years of guiding.

Many Canadian fishing camps were resigning themselves to another year of no business as the U.S.-Canada border remained closed to nonessential travel.

The Minnesota DNR said it wouldn’t offer a wolf hunting and trapping season in 2021 as it continued work on a new long-term management plan.

Scott Peterson, deputy director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department since 2014, was appointed interim director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department to replace Terry Steinwand, who was retiring at the end of the month.

August

John Williams retired as Northwest Region wildlife manager for the Minnesota DNR in Bemidji. The Indiana native joined the DNR in 1991 and previously worked at Thief Lake Wildlife Management Area and as area wildlife manager in Thief River Falls. Assistant regional manager Blane Klemek was named interim regional manager.

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John Williams retired in August 2021 as Northwest Region 1 wildlife manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. His last day was Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.
Contributed/ John Williams

As expected, drought conditions had a negative impact on duck production in North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department said in reporting results from its annual summer duck production survey. The fall flight was predicted to be down 36%, and wetland counts declined by 80%.

Throngs of Americans with property in Canada were able to cross the border for the first time since March 2020, when Canada reopened its border to nonessential travel on Monday, Aug. 9. Canadian fishing camp owners who rely on U.S. anglers also welcomed the reopening.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department tallied 32.4 walleyes per net in its annual summer population survey on Devils Lake, up from the long-term average of 21. White bass and perch also were up substantially from long-term averages.

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Jeb Williams, North Dakota Game and Fish Department director.
Contributed / North Dakota Game and Fish Department

Gov. Doug Burgum appointed Jeb Williams as the new director of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, replacing previous director Terry Steinwand, who retired in July. Williams joined Game and Fish in 1999 and became Wildlife Division chief in 2014, a position in which he served until being appointed as director.

September

North Dakota pheasant numbers were down 23% from the previous year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said in reporting results from its annual late-summer roadside surveys. Pheasant brood counts seen per 100 miles were down 30%.

Waterfowl managers in Minnesota and North Dakota were predicting tough hunting and challenging water conditions because of lingering drought.

Epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, was beginning to afflict deer populations along the Missouri River. The fatal deer disease is caused by a biting midge that thrives in the muck left as water levels recede during drought.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department named longtime employee Casey Anderson as wildlife division chief to replace Jeb Williams, who was named department director. Anderson previously served as assistant wildlife chief.

October

EHD was found for the first time in the northern Red River Valley, where the midge-borne disease killed dozens of deer in the Drayton and Warsaw, North Dakota, areas. Die-offs also were reported on the Minnesota side of the river.

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A deer that died from epizootic hemorrhagic disease is seen in October 2021 near Drayton, North Dakota. Caused by a biting midge, the disease that is fatal to white-tailed deer occurred for the first time in the Red River Valley.
Contributed / Randy Schuster

Elk hunters in northwest Minnesota had an overall success rate of 82% during four, nine-day seasons in Zone 20 near Lancaster. The two hunters drawing bull-only tags in Zone 30 in northeast Kittson County had 100% success. The DNR offered seven tags – two any-elk and five antlerless – for each of the four seasons in Zone 20.

November

Just days before the firearms deer season, the Minnesota DNR announced a whitetail buck shot during the October youth deer season southwest of Climax, Minnesota, tested positive for CWD. The disease was only discovered because the hunter voluntarily paid to have the deer tested. The news set up a last-minute scramble to collect additional samples for testing on both sides of the Red River.

In yet another example of the impact of widespread summer drought, the state Game and Fish Department said mule deer fawn-to-doe ratios in western North Dakota dipped to their lowest levels in a decade. Severe winters from 2008 through 2010 had a negative impact on fawn-to-doe ratios in 2011 and 2012.

Minnesota hunters registered fewer deer again in 2021, the DNR said. The firearms season tally of 130,820 deer statewide was down 5% from 2020 and 10% from the five-year average.

December

Deer feeding bans were scheduled to take effect Dec. 30 in several northwest Minnesota counties as part of DNR efforts to control the spread of CWD.

The city of East Grand Forks received a $1.26 million grant to improve boating access and other amenities at LaFave Park at the confluence of the Red and Red Lake rivers.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department was proposing to allow darkhouse spearing for walleyes on Devils Lake and the Missouri River System beginning April 1, 2022, the start of the next two-year fishing regulations proclamation.

Walleye abundance on Lake of the Woods was down slightly from 2020 but still within management goals, based on results from the DNR’s annual fall population assessment on the big lake. Sauger populations continue to boom and are well above management goals, the DNR said. In related news, the DNR said it was expanding its winter creel survey on Lake of the Woods to get a better handle on ice fishing pressure.

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Young-of-the-year walleye are seen after being caught in nets in September 2018 during the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' annual fall population survey on Lake of the Woods.
Contributed / Minnesota DNR

A business on the Northwest Angle mainland was hoping to build another ice road from the south end of Lake of the Woods to the Angle again this winter if ice conditions permitted safe travel. The road would allow visitors to reach the U.S. exclave by vehicle without having to drive through Manitoba and meet Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements.

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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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To get an event in the Outdoors Calendar, contact Brad Dokken at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or by email at bdokken@gfherald.com. Deadline is 5 p.m. Wednesdays.
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