Delta News

Falling Duck Population Responsible for Poor Duck Season

BISMARCK, ND—The director of Delta Waterfowl Foundation’s United States office says the debate over what caused the disappointing hunting season of 2001-2002 has diverted attention from a more pressing issue: An alarming two-year decline in the duck population.

"There’s been considerable speculation about why duck hunting was so poor last fall," says Rob Olson of Delta, which also has an office in Manitoba, "but most of those discussions ignore the fact we simply don’t have as many ducks as we did a few years ago. The mallard breeding population fell by 27 percent in two years and is now below the goals set by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan last spring.

"We’ve lost 3 million mallards from the breeding population and Delta is predicting another substantial drop when the 2002 numbers are announced in June. If we’re right, the breeding population could be as low as it was in 1994, the year the last drought ended.

"We’re coming off the most prolonged wet cycle of the last century, a time when we had large blocks of nesting cover provided by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) across the US side of the pothole region. We missed a golden opportunity to expand the duck population."

The shrinking breeding population and impending drought across the prairie pothole region are bad news for ducks and duck hunters, Olson says.

Waterfowlers got their first glimpse of the waning duck numbers last fall. Faced with empty skies and unvisited decoys, disappointed hunters came up with two possible explanations for the fall flight that never materialized. The most obvious explanation: Migrating birds were short-stopped by unusually mild weather that allowed them to winter in northern states. The most ridiculous: The ducks were baited in a deliberate effort to short-stop the migration.

While the mid-winter waterfowl survey conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service confirms some short-stopping of mallards did occur, Olson says it wasn’t enough to produce the "bust" season reported by hunters in southern states.

"Some of the states that reportedly wintered large numbers of mallards actually had fewer birds than they did in previous years," Olson says. "Other states—like Missouri—had more than usual. But we’re talking about a few hundred thousand birds, not millions."

Olson also noted that ducks like teal, shovelers, gadwalls and wigeon aren’t short-stoppers. "Those ducks typically migrate regardless of climatic conditions in the north, yet hunters in the lower regions of the flyways didn’t see many of those species, either."

The real problem, Olson says, is that nest success across the pothole region, which accounts for up to 75 percent of the continent’s ducks, has been steadily declining since the 1930s. "We know from looking at our own research and studies by Ducks Unlimited, the Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies that 90 percent of all duck nests fail to hatch a single duckling. We need 15 to 20 percent nest success just to maintain the existing population, and we’re not getting it."

Olson says that while the large blocks of dense nesting cover provided by CRP are producing ducks above the break-even level, much of the "duck factory" is not. "Some of our most elaborate and expensive habitat projects actually qualify as ‘population sinks’, which basically means fewer ducks migrate south in the fall than arrived there in the spring."

The problem, Olson contends, is that habitat alone isn’t enough to expand the duck population. "Habitat is the most basic ingredient in duck production and we need to protect every wetland and grassland we can," Olson says, "but merely putting habitat on the ground is only the first step. It’s imperative that we undertake focused, intensive management strategies aimed at producing ducks.

"Duck populations always rise during wet cycles and fall during droughts," he says. "As we enter into another drought, we need to supplement ecosystem management with programs that target duck production."

One example, Olson says, is predator management. "Research has shown that predators are the main reason production is low," he says. "In areas that don’t have large blocks of grass cover to buffer nests from predators, we need to control populations of fox, raccoons and skunks.

"Research conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrated that habitat projects are more productive if they’re adjacent to large grasslands as opposed to little islands of habitat surrounded by sparse nesting cover. And the exceedingly poor nest success across much of prairie Canada points up a need for a CRP-like set-aside program north of the border."

Olson also says more restrictive hunting seasons may be necessary to protect the breeding population, and hopes hunters will voice their support for shorter seasons and reduced bag limits until the prairies get wet again.

"We need to focus our efforts on managing duck populations," Olson says. "If we don’t make some changes quickly, the empty skies of last fall could become the rule rather than the exception."

For further information, contact Rob Olson at Delta Waterfowl Foundation’s Bismarck, ND office at 888-987-3695.