Delta News

Delta Waterfowl Says Liberal Ducks Season Ill Advised, Suggests Changes in Adaptive Harvest Management Model

Adaptive Harvest Management—the mathematical models used to establish duck hunting regulations—must be adjusted before it jeopardizes the future of waterfowl seasons, says Delta Waterfowl.

“We’re not saying AHM should be scrapped, just that we have concerns regarding the process,” says Delta President Jonathan Scarth. “We believe AHM is the best option long term to effectively manage the resource, but we’re going to ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to reevaluate the process in an attempt to get the bugs out.”

After years of setting hunting regulations based on “round table” meetings by waterfowl managers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1995 adopted AHM, mathematical models that suggest the season framework based primarily on the spring mallard population and water conditions on the breeding grounds. AHM attempts to predict the impact of several possible regulatory packages—liberal, moderate, restrictive and very restrictive—on mallard populations.

The 2002 spring numbers were discouraging—although near their long-term average, the mallard breeding population was down 31 percent in three years and the May pond count from prairie Canada was the lowest in recorded history. Yet, surprisingly, AHM suggested another liberal hunting season.

“AHM’s stated goal is to achieve the long-term maximum sustainable harvest,” says Scarth, “and we believe that’s wrong. There’s a lot of uncertainty within the data used in the AHM process. It’s critical that the Fish and Wildlife Service continue to work to improve the quality of the data used to drive the AHM model in an effort to reduce that uncertainty. Until that happens, we believe that if we’re going to err, it would be prudent to err on the side of caution.”

Delta says another problem with AHM is that the model is based strictly on mallard populations. “Mallards are a very resilient duck,” explains Rob Olson, director of Delta’s Bismarck, ND office. “They’re very adaptable and incredibly persistent nesters. Mallard numbers are down, but they’re still close to their long-term average.

“But what about species like pintails, which are at an all-time low? What about scaup, which have been losing ground for 20 years? What about canvasbacks, redheads and wood ducks?

“Another liberal season will put those species at risk. We’re looking at a closed season for canvasbacks this year. At the rate we’re going we may be looking at closed seasons on pintails in another year or two. If we get into a situation where we have special seasons for too many species, it could put the entire duck season at risk, and I don’t think anybody wants that.”

Extended seasons, which were approved as part of the 2002 regulation package, likely will exacerbate the challenges facing beleaguered species, says Olson. “Northern states are being given the option of opening on Sept. 21 and southern states will be able to hunt until January 26,” he says. “Season extensions may increase the mallard harvest by 15 percent at a time when the resource is in a state of decline.”

Ron Reynolds of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bismarck office agrees. “The early opener almost certainly will result in increased harvest of hens of all species,” Reynolds says. “Hunters need to understand that if they continue to enjoy liberal seasons based strictly on mallard populations, down the road we may be looking at closures or very restrictive special seasons on other species.”

Proponents say a liberal harvest is justified because ducks can’t be stockpiled. Says Reynolds: “Some scientists will argue that you can’t stockpile ducks so it’s better to harvest the birds than allow them to return to drought-stricken breeding grounds where they won’t survive anyway. I don’t know if you can stockpile ducks, but you can carry them over.

“Our research has shown that on dry years a lot of hens don’t even attempt to nest. Because a high percentage of hen mortality is caused by predation on the breeding grounds, many of those non-nesting hens will survive until water returns to the prairie.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s Central Flyway Representative Dave Sharp of Denver says, “Does one suit of armor (AHM) fit every species of ducks, the answer is no. A long, liberal season is a problem for species like pintails, canvasbacks and scaup.”

Harvey Nelson, one of the principle authors of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and NAWMP’s first director, also questioned the wisdom of liberal seasons in the face of a drought. “In terms of habitat conditions and population trends, it would have been more sound biologically not to have the early opener and liberal seasons. I would have expected that this year we’d see a move to a more conservative phase (in season setting).”

Olson believes hunters would have been content with a more conservative season. “Hunters are telling us they’re more concerned about protecting the resource than they are about having a liberal season. Hunters have always supported whatever is necessary to protect duck populations for future generations, and today’s hunters are no different.”

Olson points to Minnesota, where hunters’ objections to season extensions were so vocal the state’s Department of Natural Resources rejected the Sept. 21 opener. “We’ve heard similar complaints from sportsmen across the country,” he says.

Reynolds—who like Olson is an avid waterfowl hunter—agrees. “Obviously, I want to see lots of hunters in the field. Those duck-stamp dollars are what we use to secure breeding habitat. But I don’t believe ultra-liberal regulations are the best way to keep hunters in the game.”

Olson says Delta is urging sportsmen to practice voluntary restraint. “We’re encouraging sportsmen to go hunting and enjoy the resource,” he says, “but we’re asking them to voluntarily limit their harvest and be more selective, focusing their attention on drakes.

“In the meantime, we’re urging Fish and Wildlife to re-evaluate the AHM model so that it better reflects the needs of all species of ducks.”