The Duck Factory Turned Upside-Down
Thanks to CRP and other key programs, the U.S. is now producing more ducks than prairie Canada. It’s one of the biggest stories in waterfowl hunting, with serious implications for the future. So why is no one talking about it?
By Dan Nelson, Editor
For the past 56 years, waterfowl scientists and hunters alike have used the data collected in the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat survey to make predictions about the impending fall flight.
If the number-crunchers would set aside their crystal balls long enough to analyze the results of past surveys, they might see a worrisome trend in the distribution of breeding ducks, one that could have serious implications for the fall flights of the future.
In 2009, when, for the first time ever, the U.S. side of the prairie breeding grounds attracted more ducks than the Canadian side, many observers dismissed it as an anomaly, saying an unusually late spring forced anxious-to-nest ducks to set up housekeeping in the U.S.
When conditions return to normal, most suspected, Canada would again attract the lion's share of breeding ducks, just like it has every spring since the last glacier receded.
They did, but it didn't.
This year, despite a wet, early spring in Canada, even more ducks settled in the U.S. than the Canadian prairies. More mallards, gadwalls, shovelers, blue-winged teal and pintails — yes, even more pintails — settled south of the border.
On a 1-to-10 scale of improbable events, the U.S. prairies attracting more ducks than the prairie provinces is a 9.9. The U.S. hockey team's Olympic win over Canada pales in comparison.
It's true the pond count in the eastern Dakotas was 87 percent higher than its long-term average. But ducks don't select nesting sites based on long-term averages, they're attracted to wetlands, and this spring prairie Canada had 800,000 more of them than the U.S., suggesting the recent changing of the guard is not the anomaly many suspected.
A lot of hunters are probably saying so what? I don't care where the ducks come from, as long as they come.
The obvious answer is that the U.S. has been picking up the slack for Canada for years, but some of the programs responsible for those ducks are at risk. Who'll pick up the slack for the U.S. if those programs go away?
When the results of last year's survey were announced, Delta Scientific Director Dr. Frank Rohwer and Ron Reynolds of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that not only is the U.S. producing more ducks than Canada, it's exporting surplus ducks to Canada, which distorts the survey by masking Canada's lack of productivity. "There's no question that we are a net exporter of ducks," said Reynolds, who recently retired. "We're producing surplus ducks that are redistributing to nest in other areas."
Rohwer said research suggests ducks produced in the U.S. return to the area where they were raised, but often find a "no-vacancy" sign. If the existing habitat is full, those ducks are forced to disperse to areas where, as a result of poor production, there are fewer birds competing for the existing habitat. One such place, he said, is Canada, where habitat losses have been well documented and production is low.
"Canada's broken," confirms Delta President Rob Olson, a fiercely proud Canadian and avid waterfowl hunter who bites his lip every time he speaks the words. In 2005 it was Olson who first sounded the alarm when he wrote on these pages, "Burn the message in your minds. Plaster it on bumper stickers, tee-shirts and hats, shout it from your blind. The Canadian duck factory is broken."
Restoring the glorious flights of yesteryear will be a tall order without prairie Canada's participation. After all, 55 percent of the land mass and 68 percent of the wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) are located north of the border. "Hunters aren't likely to see fall flights like those of the 1950s, 1970s or even the 1990s until conservation leaders find ways to fix it," Olson predicted.
Earlier in 2005 we wrote, "Prairie Canada's ability to attract and produce mallards has been steadily shrinking for half a century, and the billion-dollar-plus investment by conservation interests has failed to reverse the trend."
At the time, Canada was still attracting more breeding mallards than the U.S., but we expressed concern that the percentage of the mallard population settling there had been shrinking for decades— from 70 percent in the late 1950s to 50 percent in 1982 and less than 40 percent most years since.
Few took us seriously back then— some even took offense to our comments—but the past is prologue, and this year, as Canadian mallards slipped to 31 percent, the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore.
Said Reynolds: "I have a slide showing that the eastern Dakota survey region makes up just 7 percent of the total survey area — not just the prairie pothole portion, but the entire survey area — yet it's been producing over 20 percent of the ducks."
In 2010, 34 percent of the total ducks and 35 percent of the mal- lards from the traditional survey area settled on the U.S. side of the region.
Even more alarming is the growing disparity between the number of ducks settling in the U.S. and in prairie Saskatchewan, the Mecca of continental duck production.
Saskatchewan has been wet 5 of the last 6 years, averaging almost as many ponds is it did during the wet cycles of the 1970s and '90s, and this year had 327,000 more ponds than the eastern Dakotas. It would be logical, then, to assume Saskatchewan was covered up with breeding ducks.
It wasn't. The U.S. attracted (see chart below) 40 percent more mallards than Saskatchewan, almost three times as many blue-winged teal, nearly four times as many pin- tails, and more gadwalls, wigeon, shovelers, scaup and redheads.
The adjacent chart shows the number of ducks settling in Saskatchewan has fallen precipitously from the long-term average in four of the 10 surveyed species. Meanwhile, duck counts for the over-achieving eastern Dakota region in recent years swelled to almost grotesque levels.
Scientists tell us breeding ducks track ponds. That's why last year, at the urging of a a handful of scien- tists, Delta developed ducks-per- pond ratio as a way of comparing Canada and the U.S.. "Raw numbers don't necessarily mean much," one savvy analyst cautioned. "A more meaningful comparison would be ducks-per-pond."
We ran the numbers, comparing the five prairie-breeding duck species, and what we found was that in 2009 the U.S. attracted 4.29 ducks per pond while Canada attracted just 2.62. This year the spread was even greater, with 4.04 ducks-per-pond in the U.S. to just 2.09 in Canada.
The Conservation Reserve Program's contribution to the num- bers is undeniable. Since CRP became part of the U.S. farmscape in the mid-1980s, the U.S. ducks- per-pond ratio has been a whopping 46 percent higher than Canada's.
U.S. production has benefitted from a number of other duck-friend- ly programs/policies as well, including the Small-Wetlands Acquisition Program (duck stamp), the federal refuge system, the swampbuster provisions of the farm bill, the Clean Water Act, grassland ease- ments and an outbreak of mange that kept fox populations in check for nearly two decades.
The moral of the story is as obvious as the bill on a shoveler's face: Hunters and conservationists must find ways to protect the programs responsible for raising ducks on the U.S. side of the breeding grounds and implement similarly affective programs in Canada.