Drought Conditions Could Impact Fall Flight
Shrinking water affects duckling survival, alters migration
By Tyler Shoberg, Associate Editor
With much of the United States and parts of Canada currently baked to a crisp from a long, dry summer, waterfowl hunters are anxious to learn what impact, if any, the ongoing drought conditions could have on hunting success.
According to John Devney, Delta Waterfowl senior director of U.S. policy, based in Bismarck, N.D., the dry conditions of summer should have a minor impact on the duck numbers this fall. Water conditions were about average early this spring and into May, when the nesting effort for most ducks began.
"The die was cast for this season before mid-July," Devney explained. "This dry weather could have implications for duck survival, but I think we got what we were going to get."
As for drought affecting hunting season, that is going to depend on where the water is when the season starts. Areas with less water could see higher concentrations of ducks and geese, while more saturated places could experience a dispersal of birds. The result will be a boon for some hunters, and a bust for others.
"Duck hunters who don't have water are going to say, 'This is the worst year we've had in 30 years,' " said Frank Rohwer, Delta scientific director. "But you know, ducks don't go where there isn't any water."
Drought, Drought Everywhere
According to a recent report released by the National Weather Service, as of mid-July, more than half of the United States was experiencing moderate to extreme drought. Large chunks of northern Iowa, western Minnesota, all of South Dakota, and more than 70 percent of North Dakota are suffering from abnormally dry to severe drought levels.
Combined with findings of the 2012 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey indicating a 32 percent decline from 2011 in total pond counts for prairie Canada and the United States, water conditions don't bode well for waterfowl.
"Seasonal, temporary and even small semi-permanent wetlands are drying early," Rohwer said. "It's not anywhere near what we've seen in prior drought years, but if this continues and we don't get a wet fall, it will take a fair amount of rain to fill everything back up."
Hunters likely won't notice a decline in ducks this fall, in part because of an exceptionally early spring. Ducks were able to nest earlier and take advantage of temporary or seasonal wetlands on the landscape before they disappeared. And even though pond counts were down, they were still 9 percent above the long-term average.
"I don't think (duck) production will be off that much," Rohwer said. "It still should be a fabulous year."
While much of Canada's Prairie Pothole Region seems to be faring better than its southerly neighbors — especially Manitoba, southeast Saskatchewan, and central Alberta — drought conditions exist in the central and eastern Canada.
"There is a real scattering of extremes across prairie Canada," said Jim Fisher, Delta Waterfowl director of conservation policy, based in Winnipeg. "There are areas of extreme wet and extreme dry, but that's the nature of it."
Duckling Survival Linked to Water
Brood survival rates directly correlate with the amount of water on the landscape. As water levels rise, ducklings have a better chance to live long enough to fly south. But as waters recede, the chance for duck loss, specifically from predation, increases.
"We've been spoiled the last few years because of all the water," Rohwer said. "But typically in a dry year like this, brood survival isn't very good."
If there is any positive about this year's less-than-ideal water conditions, it is that hunters to the south and along the coast might get a bit larger push of birds than they've seen in the past. If crop harvests occur earlier in northern climates, waterfowl likely will deplete those food resources sooner in the season and be forced to migrate in order to find the next all-you-can-eat buffet.
"I'd suspect we won't see the ducks held in the Midwest like we have in the past," Rohwer said. "It'll be good for coastal hunters and hunters in the south."