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BPOP: Spring Breeding Population Down Again Drought and Declining Populations Will Reduce Fall Flight

BISMARCK, ND—Hunters will find little to cheer about in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual survey of breeding ducks, which was released today.

The mallard breeding population dropped another 5 percent marking the third straight year that this key indicator has fallen. After hitting a 41-year high of 10.8 million birds in 1999, the spring mallard population has now slid 31% percent to 7.5 million.

The other closely watched survey number—May ponds—revealed a significant 41% percent drop in wetlands across the drought-stricken prairie pothole region. The number of May ponds in Prairie Canada is the lowest since surveys were initiated in 1955.

“That’s a double-whammy for ducks and duck hunters,” says Rob Olson, director of Delta Waterfowl’s United States office in Bismarck. “The mallard population has seen significant declines over the past three years and our other duck populations are falling as well. And now much of the prairie pothole region—the continent’s duck factory—is as dry as it was at the peak of the last drought, which means production likely will continue to be low.”

About the only good news from the breeding grounds is that some portions of Canada and the northern US received rain in mid-June after the survey was completed. While the rain may boost re-nesting efforts in some areas, Olson says that overall he expects another poor year of production.

Mallards weren’t the only species that declined in the 2002 spring survey. Pintails saw a precipitous drop of 46% and is the lowest number of breeding pintails since ‘55. Gadwall dropped 17%, Wigeon -6%, Green wing teal -7%, Blue-wing teal -27%, Shoveler-30%, Redhead -21%, Canvasback -16% and Scaup declined 5%. In all the total breeding population dropped 14% to 31,181,000, 6% below the long-term average.

“After looking at the breeding population figures and viewing the pothole region first-hand, Delta is urging the Fish and Wildlife Service to exercise restraint in setting the fall hunting seasons,” Olson says. “We don’t know how long the drought will last, but history tells us that when the prairies go dry and duck populations are dropping, it’s time to enact more restrictive season lengths and bag limits.

“Hunters across the country are telling us they’re more concerned about doing what’s best for ducks than they are about long seasons and liberal bag limits,” Olson says. “We hope the Service will do what’s best for the future of ducks, and that duck hunters across the country will support more conservative regulations.”

A number of factors come into play when the prairies go dry, and most are bad for ducks. “When small wetlands go dry, the carrying capacity of the landscape is reduced,” says Delta Scientific Director Serge Lariviere. “Seasonal and temporary wetlands provide nesting hens with the nutrition they need to carry them through the rigors of nesting and incubation. When seasonals and temporaries are in short supply, nesting and re-nesting efforts are negatively impacted.”

“Research has shown that small wetlands are also critical for brood survival. When you put all these factors together, they add up to a reduced fall flight.

The three-year drop in spring mallard numbers is particularly disturbing to Delta because it started in 2000, a year when water conditions on the prairies were still reasonably good. “We know duck numbers always drop during a drought,” Olson says, “but the current downturn actually preceded the drought.

“History has shown that duck production falls dramatically when the prairies go dry. If the mallard breeding population is this low now, where will it be by the time the prairies get wet again?”

Olson concludes, “Hunters should not panic about the drought and its effects, but continue to remain focused on the biggest challenge facing ducks, that of poor production. We believe the time has come to begin delivering new tools to ensure we are seeing strong production from those hens that return to the breeding grounds.” Olson mentions that Delta’s research has identified techniques that can help nesting ducks in tough times.

“Our findings on Hen Houses and predator management illustrate that these tools can significantly increase production and ensure nesting success in targeted areas even when habitat conditions are poor. And this recent drought also reaffirms the need for a landscape level habitat program in Prairie Canada similar to CRP. We need to use every arrow in our quiver of duck production tools to help ducks right now.”