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Where Were the Ducks?

BISMARCK, ND—Waterfowlers will remember 2003-2004 as the season that came in with a roar and went out with a whimper.

Early last spring a blizzard roared across portions of the prairie breeding grounds providing much-needed relief from several years of drought. Countless newspaper and magazine articles predicted duck numbers would soar to levels not seen since the record harvest of 1999.

But the promised season never materialized, leaving many hunters—particularly those in the South—asking, “Where were the ducks?”

Rob Olson of Delta Waterfowl’s US office says he wasn’t surprised by the disappointing season experienced by many hunters. “It’s true the breeding grounds received good precipitation last spring,” says Olson, “and I have to admit we were at first hopeful that production would be improved. But those hopes evaporated as quickly as most of the water.

“I cringed when I read glowing reports about the great fall flight that was coming,” says Olson. “Based on what? Even after the blizzard wetland conditions across prairie Canada—where most of the ducks settled last spring—were just five percent above the long-term average,” says Olson, “and by July, the pond count in Canada was 16 percent below average. The brood index was 24 percent below the long-term average in prairie Canada and seven percent below the LTA across the pothole region.

“It doesn’t take a team of accountants to predict that average conditions and below-average brood counts don’t add up to a huge fall flight.

“Besides,” Olson says, “water is only part of the equation. Wetlands attract nesting hens to an area, but once the ducks settle they need large blocks of grass nesting cover in order to be successful. There isn’t a lot of grass across most of prairie Canada, and as a result nest success in many areas is too low to maintain the existing population, let alone expand it.”

Olson says Delta tried to temper hunters’ enthusiasm by saying it was “guardedly optimistic” about the coming season, but Delta’s warning was trumped by persistent reports of a “banner year” of production on the prairies.

When the promised ducks didn’t show up, another rumor started making the rounds: Large numbers of ducks were wintering in places like South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

“Hunters were concerned about reports that South Dakota had 50,000 birds in January. South Dakota did have 50,000 ducks in January, but that’s less than a third of the 172,000 mallards that winter in South Dakota on an average year,” Olson says.

“In 1999 South Dakota wintered 154,000 mallards, and in ’97 South Dakota wintered 530,000 mallards. Hunters from southern states enjoyed great hunting those years, because there were enough ducks to go around.

“According to the midwinter surveys from 1948 through 2002, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas hold an average of 43.5 percent of all the mallards surveyed in the Central Flyway each winter. In the Mississippi Flyway, 30 percent of all the ducks inventoried each winter can be found in a handful of northern and mid-latitude states. This isn’t anything new, it’s been going on since before most of us were born.”

Olson says checks of Central and Mississippi flyway states have revealed no unusually large buildups of ducks. “The big fall flight didn’t shortstop,” says Olson, “it simply didn’t exist, at least not in the numbers hunters were led to believe. This was an average year, nothing more.

“Unfortunately, hunters were promised a great fall flight, and when it didn’t materialize they were disappointed. I think the continent’s waterfowl hunters deserve better than that. It’s time for some straight talk about ducks, and we should start by admitting that one of the reasons for disappointing fall flights is that we have some serious production problems on the breeding grounds.

“We continue to lose grasslands at an alarming rate, wetlands are under siege and predation continues to take a huge bite out of production. Those are the messages hunters need to hear.

“After all, if hunters don’t understand the problems, how can we expect them to support our efforts to correct those problems?”