Scaup Debate: Why Delta, Others Questioned The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Harvest Strategy
If I had to choose just one duck to hunt for the rest of my life, it would be bluebills. You mallard snobs might think I’m nuts, but there’s nothing like standing on a windswept point in a freezing snowstorm, gunning big-water ‘bills.By the time you read this piece, there’s a pretty good chance the bluebill bag limit will have dropped from two to one for at least part of the hunting season over most of the U.S. This may not sound like a big deal to hunters who don’t target scaup, but if you hunt ducks, this issue deserves your attention whether you love ‘bills or not.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has implemented a new scaup harvest strategy inspired by a biological modeling exercise and a consultation process that Delta believes is not supported by the best science and does hunters a significant disservice.
Huh? Doesn’t Delta have a record of supporting conservative harvest when a duck species is in trouble, and haven’t scaup populations declined dramatically since the 1970s? And isn’t this criticism coming from a group that has tirelessly promoted the good work of the Service? What gives?
In the spring and summer, when you and I are out fishing or sipping lemonade on a porch somewhere, Service and state biologists are working to determine bag limits and seasons for the coming fall. This annual dance is always a little noisy, but two years ago the season-setting process for scaup generated even more commotion than usual. Two significant problems pulled Delta into the discussion: First, too many smart waterfowl biologists felt the bag- limit reduction being pushed by the Service wasn’t warranted. Second, it was obvious that even the flyway biologists didn’t fully understand the complex biological model being used to guide harvest management.
Delta did what Delta does when faced with a tough question: we turned to the science. In February of this year, we invited 10 highly capable wildlife professionals to Minneapolis to take a fresh look at the model.
This independent assessment team came to a speedy and clear consensus, which is no small feat with that many rocket scientists together in one room. While they greatly appreciated and endorsed the theory and modeling efforts by the USFWS, they concluded that harvest, which is quite low, poses no immediate danger to scaup numbers and that the model needed more work before being implemented.
Scaup are harvested at a very low rate compared to other species, and despite their long-term decline, are still our third most-abundant duck in the 2008 spring survey. There is a consensus among folks who study scaup intensively that there is no evidence that hunting is affecting scaup populations today. Moreover, the numbers of scaup increased the last two years.
The biggest problem with reducing the scaup limit is that it will further discourage bluebill aficionados. Only the hardiest of hunters would abide the cold, wind and hard work required by diver hunters for a single bird. Worse, lacking the small-but-dedicated constituency of hard-core hunters, much-needed research on the species would likely go unfunded, and until we understand why the population is declining we surely can’t solve the problem.
I believe that now, more than ever, Delta Waterfowl needs to assert itself in a bigger way in this process. Because of our complete independence, we are the only international conservation group that can and will weigh in on harvest issues.
Delta can be the bridge to bring an independent science to the flyways, and at the same time bring coordinated pressure on the U.S. government to provide adequate funding for the Service to conduct the modeling and consultation required to solve future complex harvest issues.
There is an awful lot at stake here. Any further loss of scaup hunters resulting from reduced limits would be a huge problem for scaup because as most of you know, hunters are the strongest advocates for conservation.