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Majority of Ducks Have Left The Prairie Breeding Grounds

BISMARCK, ND—Waterfowlers on the prairie breeding grounds got bad news this week, and duck hunters across the south couldn’t be happier.

According to reports from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the majority of the ducks lingering in North and South Dakota migrated following a Thanksgiving-weekend cold snap that froze all but the biggest waters. That’s the news southern waterfowl hunters, who’ve been frustrated by the lack of birds visiting their decoys, have been waiting to hear.

More good news for southern hunters: an upper-level storm system rolled off the Rockies and tracked across Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Kansas early this week, dropping temperatures to into the teens and even leaving some snow in its wake.

“Only a relative handful of ducks are left in prairie Canada and the Dakotas,” says Delta Waterfowl President Rob Olson, “and contrary to what hunters may have heard, the bulk of our ducks were gone a week ago.”

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the biggest concentration of ducks early last week was 110,000 at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. “While that may sound like a lot, it isn’t significant in the grand scheme of things,” Olson says. Sand Lake biologist Bill Schultze reports the duck count had slipped to 50,000 by Monday, and with most of the refuge’s lakes ice-covered, he expected the waterfowl count to continue to decline through the week.

Ken Torkelson of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Region 6 office in Bismarck, ND, issued his final survey of the season. That survey revealed:

* About 30,000 ducks were counted in the vicinity of North Dakota’s Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge last week, but most of those are now gone after colder temperatures set in over the weekend.

* “Almost all the ducks have pulled out” of the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge (ND), and the 25,000 ducks on the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge (ND) a week ago also have migrated.

* Most of the waterfowl using the Lostwood NWR and the J. Clark Salyer NWR, both in North Dakota, had migrated prior to last week.

Torkelson says he heard reports of 15,000 ducks in southeastern North Dakota, but he suspected those birds would be gone by mid-week as sub-freezing temperatures persisted across the state. “It looks like this is probably the end of the waterfowl season,” he concluded.

South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks reported 90,000 ducks on the Missouri River system in South Dakota as compared to 150,000 for the same week last year. There also are scattered pockets of ducks using the open water of Missouri River and its reservoirs in North Dakota.

“It’s not uncommon for portions of the Missouri River system and warm-water reservoirs at power plants to hold ducks all winter,” Olson says. “It happens in all but the most severe winters. But we’re talking a relatively small number of birds.”

So where are the ducks now? “It’s hard to say because most states do not conduct regular waterfowl surveys,” says Olson. “All we can say for certain is that there aren’t many ducks left on the breeding grounds.”

Despite the promising news on the weather front, Olson cautions southern hunters not to get their hopes up about a sky-blackening flight of ducks. “The breeding population of ducks last spring was down 11 percent from 2003, and the May pond count was down 24 percent from the previous year and was 19 percent below the long-term average. There’s nothing in those numbers to suggest a banner fall flight,” says Olson.

“Hunting was spotty across most of Canada and the Dakotas this fall,” Olson says. “There were scattered reports of good concentrations of ducks, but overall the season was about what you’d expect given the breeding population and sub-par conditions on the breeding grounds last spring.”

Editors: For more information, contact Rob Olson or John Devney at 888-987-3695.