DULUTH - The number of Minnesota small-game hunters dropped last fall compared to 2015, continuing a steady trend, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported this past week.

According to the agency's annual survey of small-game hunters, the number of duck and goose hunters dropped, as did the number of pheasant hunters. Grouse hunter numbers were up about 4 percent but remain much lower than in past decades.

"It's something we take very seriously," Dave Olfelt, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids, said of the decline. "It's a challenge that people in our line of work are facing all over the country."

The majority of the DNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife revenue comes from license dollars.

The DNR's survey revealed that the state had 67,301 duck hunters in 2016, far fewer than the 76,200 in 2015, which led to a decline in the duck harvest from 663,811 in 2015 to 606,458.

The Canada goose harvest edged up slightly to an estimated 204,825 despite the decline in hunters from 45,938 in 2015 to 40,950 in 2016.

An estimated 59,965 pheasant hunters went afield in 2016, down slightly from 2015. Nearly 120,000 pheasant hunters went afield in 2006 and 2007 when the pheasant population was much higher.

The estimated ring-necked pheasant harvest declined from 243,176 roosters in 2015 to 196,141 last fall. A wet fall and standing corn throughout much of the pheasant range likely contributed to some of the reduced harvest, DNR wildlife officials said.

The number of grouse hunters last fall was 82,348, an increase of 4 percent from 2015, according to the survey. The ruffed grouse harvest increased 15 percent from 267,997 grouse in 2015 to 308,955 in 2016.

The decline in small-game hunter numbers is a continuing trend, said Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section leader in St. Paul.

"There are probably various reasons for that," Telander said. "There's a lot of other interests that can divert people away from hunting - kids are involved in lots of activities. That's why a lot fall out. The trick is getting them back in."

Reasons for decline

Several factors may be contributing to the steady decline in duck hunter numbers, said Duluth's Michael Furtman, an outdoors writer and a Ducks Unlimited columnist.

"Duck hunting in Minnesota isn't what it used to be," Furtman said. "It's not necessarily because duck populations are down. Some of the migration patterns have changed. People are opportunists, and duck hunting is a lot of work. If duck hunters aren't going to get birds, they might go fall fishing."

Part of the waterfowl migration path, which used to include much of Minnesota, has shifted west to the Dakotas, Furtman said. Some Minnesota duck hunters may have quit hunting in Minnesota and shifted to hunting in the Dakotas, he said.

Also, with a warming climate, many northern ducks don't migrate until late in the season.

"Autumns have been mild, and all of a sudden winter comes and the birds blow through in a matter of days - if they stop at all," Furtman said.

The duck-hunting population is aging, Furtman added, and some hunters may be dropping out of a sport that is labor-intensive.

Access an issue

Pheasant hunting faces similar challenges, including an aging hunter population, said Jared Wiklund, public relations manager for Pheasants Forever based in St. Paul. Last fall's Minnesota pheasant hunters faced wet conditions for much of the season, which could have discouraged participation, he said. But the biggest factor contributing to a decline in pheasant hunter numbers is access to hunting land, Wiklund said.

"Minneapolis itself is the largest metro area for Pheasants Forever members in the country," Wiklund said. "For urban hunters, access is a huge thing."

Minnesota's best pheasant hunting is in the southwest corner of the state, and that's a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Twin Cities, Wiklund said. If hunters try to hunt closer to the Twin Cities on public land, they may encounter competition from other hunters.

Pheasants Forever is concerned about the decline in hunter numbers.

"Pheasants Forever is a wildlife habitat group that's motivated by upland hunters," Wiklund said. "(The decline) is a big thing for us. The largest growing demographic is women hunters. That's something we're trying to tap into. We've just hired a women-in-conservation coordinator in North Dakota. We're trying to get past the stigma that it's just a men's tradition."

Grouse hunters hopeful

Minnesota's grouse hunter numbers also are a concern for the DNR, said Ted Dick, DNR forest game bird coordinator at Grand Rapids.

"In the past, when grouse numbers trended upward, the number of hunters would go up dramatically," he said.

Minnesota's ruffed grouse population tends to rise and fall within a 10-year cycle.

"Before the last peak, hunter numbers really leveled off compared to the drumming counts," Dick said. "That's the ongoing issue with hunting in general - people are finding other things to do. It's kind of the reality. For a state agency that depends on license funds, we need to stem that tide."

This fall's grouse numbers could draw more hunters back to the woods. The DNR's spring drumming counts showed a 57 percent increase statewide over 2015, a surprisingly large year-over-year increase. If the birds had a good nesting season, hunters could find a lot more birds in the woods this fall.

The DNR offers several programs for young and first-time hunters to hunt with mentors. The hope is that more young people will take up hunting.

Pheasants Forever is partnering with local groups to support high school clay-target shooting teams, hoping that once exposed to shooting, the students will be more likely to take up hunting, Wiklund said.

For complete results of the DNR's small-game hunting survey, visit the DNR website at mndnr.gov/publications/wildlife.