Bighorn sheep, Rainy River and DU awards

Some Monday outdoors tidbits:

Bighorn sheep outlook improves
Nothing’s official yet, but prospects for a bighorn sheep season this fall in North Dakota are improving, based on results from the Game and Fish Department’s annual bighorn sheep survey.

Bighorn sheep numbers in North Dakota are improving, Game and Fish says. (Photo by Craig Bihrle, ND Game and Fish)

Bighorn sheep numbers in North Dakota are improving, Game and Fish says. (Photo by Craig Bihrle, ND Game and Fish)

Game and Fish this morning said the survey showed a minimum of 292 bighorn sheep in western North Dakota, up 8 percent from last year and 3 percent from the five year average.

The survey tallied 88 rams, 160 ewes and 44 lambs. The total doesn’t include about 30 sheep in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The results are good news after a die-off that began in 2014, the result of an outbreak of bacterial pneumonia, officials said.

“Adult mortality slowed significantly in 2015, and we had a good number of lambs survive in 2014 and 2015 to compensate for most of the adult losses,” Brett Wiedmann, big game biologist for Game and Fish, said in a news release. “The bad news is that many bighorns are still showing signs of pneumonia, so next year’s survey will be important in determining if the state’s population is continuing to recover from the disease outbreak, or if the pathogens are likely to persist and cause a long-term population decline.”

In the release, Dr. Dan Grove, department veterinarian, said disease testing last winter revealed deadly pathogens still were present in 16 of 22 bighorns tested. He said animals continue to succumb to pneumonia, albeit at a much slower rate.

Game and Fish didn’t offer a bighorn sheep season last year, but a season this year is tentatively scheduled unless another pneumonia outbreak occurs. Game and Fish will make a final determination Sept. 1 after results from summer population surveys are available.

Muddy Rainy

A boat launches Saturday morning at Timbermill Park on the Rainy River in Baudette, Minn. (Dennis Topp, Minnesota DNR)

A boat launches Saturday morning at Timbermill Park on the Rainy River in Baudette, Minn. (Dennis Topp, Minnesota DNR)

Open water fishing reports from the Rainy River have taken a big turn for the slower in recent days after runoff from tributary streams and last week’s snowfall muddied up the water.

When the Rainy turns muddy, to say walleye fishing slows would be an understatement.

That didn’t keep diehards off the water over the weekend. Dennis Topp of the DNR’s area fisheries office in Baudette, Minn., texted Saturday morning to say anglers were launching boats even though the air temperature had dipped to 5 degrees, and a skim of ice covered the river in places. Topp was doing a boat and trailer count as part of a spring creel survey the DNR is conducting on the Rainy River.

The good news is the spring walleye season on the Rainy and other Minnesota-Ontario border waters is open through April 14, so there’s plenty of time for conditions to improve. Ice-out also is prime time for spring sturgeon fishing on the Rainy.

DU honors N.D. wildlife professional, landowners
North Dakota was well represented Friday when Ducks Unlimited handed out awards during the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Pittsburgh.

Tammy Fairbanks, North Dakota realty supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck, was awarded Ducks Unlimited’s national Wetland Conservation Achievement Award in the Federal Agency Employee category, and Craig and Shelley Larson of Bismarck received DU’s 2016 Wetland Conservation Achievement Award in the Private Citizen category.

In a news release, DU cited Fairbanks for “leadership that has been integral to the innovative private/public partnership with Ducks Unlimited that helps meet the huge landowner demand for conservation programs in North Dakota.”

Since 1998, the Service and DU have worked with more than 7,200 landowners to conserve grasslands and wetlands across the Prairie Pothole Region of the Dakotas and Montana, DU said.

“Tammy’s partnership efforts have substantially increased landowners’ ability to conserve habitat on their properties and demonstrates her strong commitment to the protection of waterfowl habitat,” Paul Schmidt, DU chief of conservation, said in a news release.

Schmidt also praised the Larsons’ conservation efforts.

“The Larsons have not only advocated for wetland and prairie conservation but have also carried out that passion for the prairies in their own lives by protecting and restoring critical habitat on their land,” Schmidt said in a news release. “Craig and Shelley have helped to directly protect and restore several thousand acres of exceptional prairie habitat. They have also seeded land on their property back to native prairie and have nurtured the grass back to robust stands.”

The Larsons also have incorporated conservation into their business practices at Starion Financial, where Craig is president and chief executive officer.

“I want to do my part to do the right thing for the environment,” Craig said in the news release. “To me, it’s about maintaining the balance of working landscapes and nature — to allow us to farm the best and leave the rest. I’ve been fortunate to experience nature’s beauty across the country and am passionate about preserving it. Conservation isn’t something you see the effects of overnight, but it is critical we join together to create a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.”

Craig and Shelley have contributed financially to the efforts of others working in the prairies, including Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Dakota and The North Dakota Natural Resources Trust, DU said.

Ice rapidly disappearing on the Rainy River

The border country has gotten nearly a foot of snow in the past day, but that’s not stopping the downstream march of open water on the Rainy River.

The river now is open past the International Bridge in Baudette, Minn. — the earliest since 2000, when it opened at the bridge March 11 — based on records the Northern Light Region newspaper has kept dating back to the 1930s.

The boat ramp at Nelson Park in Birchdale, Minn., and the Vidas Access in Clementson, Minn., both have been cleared of ice and are open to boats of all sizes.

Dennis Topp, assistant area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Baudette, said he took drive up state Highway 172 — which parallels the Rainy River — to Lake of the Woods this afternoon and said the channel of the river was open past the Winter Road River.

That means the leading edge of open water is within about 6 miles of Wheeler’s Point, where the Rainy flows into Four-Mile Bay, which marks the beginning of Lake of the Woods.

“It will open past Wheeler’s Point within two days,” Topp wrote in an email. “There is a big open-water area already right at Wheeler’s Point.”

The Frontier Access, which is about halfway between Clementson and Birchdale, still has some shore ice, and with the snowfall that hit the area, county crews likely have shifted gears from clearing ice at boat ramps to plowing snow on sloppy roads.

Walleye reports on the Rainy had been pretty good before the snow hit, but with colder weather in the forecast for the next several days, fishing could take a turn for the slower. A bigger factor, though, will be the runoff from the snow and various tributary streams. When the river turns muddy, fishing on the Rainy comes to a screeching to a halt until conditions improve.

On this I speak from experience.

Spring fishing in full swing along the Rainy River

Like it or not, winter appears to be history, and fishing-wise, it’s time to set the sights on open water.

Lake of the Woods Tourism shared this photo of heavy equipment clearing ice today at the Nelson Park boat ramp on the Rainy River in Birchdale, Minn.

Lake of the Woods Tourism shared this photo of heavy equipment clearing ice today at the Nelson Park boat ramp on the Rainy River in Birchdale, Minn.

The big news comes from the Rainy River, where Lake of the Woods Tourism this afternoon posted a photo of heavy equipment clearing ice from the boat ramp at Nelson Park in Birchdale, Minn., which means the landing now is open to large boats.

Let the circus begin.

The Rainy is making the open-water push downstream earlier than usual this year — no surprise, given the nonwinter we’ve had — and from the second-hand reports I’ve seen, anglers also are pushing small boats across the ice to access the river at the Frontier Landing some 20 miles east of Baudette, Minn., as well.

Early indications are that walleye action is very good, and the Rainy River is living up to its reputation as one of the best spring walleye destinations in the region. Season on the river and other Minnesota-Ontario border waters is open through April 14. If I was a betting man, I’d put money on a large portion of Lake of the Woods being ice-free before the spring season ends.

It’s sure looking that way at this point.