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USFWS Regulations Committee Approves Scaup Harvest Strategy

Bismarck, N.D -- American waterfowl hunters are one step closer to facing a reduced scaup bag limit for the upcoming hunting season.

That's because the Service Regulations Committee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) approved a harvest strategy last week that paves the way for the bag limit reduction. The move was opposed by Delta Waterfowl, the state wildlife agencies in Louisiana, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota, as well as the Mississippi and Central Flyway Councils and the California Waterfowl Association.

"The decision is very disheartening, but not all hope is lost," said Delta President Rob Olson, noting that the scaup bag limit for Mississippi and Central Flyway hunters could be reduced from two birds to one. "A final decision to reduce the scaup bag limit won't be decided until later this summer, but this move does send a clear message to scaup hunters that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is intent on reducing the bag limit, despite strong opposition from Delta and others. We believe the harvest model used by the Service may be inadequate and should be fully reexamined before any reduction in the scaup bag limit occurs."

Olson says a one-bird scaup bag limit also puts hunters at a disadvantage, because under some conditions it's difficult to identify scaup from other diving duck species. "If, for example, a hunter shoots a drake bluebill, he or she may be forced to forgo the rest of their day in the marsh, rather than risk taking another scaup and being in violation of any new regulations," said Olson. "Scaup are a coveted waterfowl species for many hunters. We don't want to see regulated to the status of a 'mistake' bird."

Last June, after the USFWS proposed its scaup harvest strategy, Delta Waterfowl sent a letter to Division of Migratory Bird Management Chief Dr. Robert Blohm, urging the USFWS not to pursue its proposed strategy because the evidence did not immediately warrant the bag limit reduction.

In February, Delta Waterfowl convened a scientific panel of scaup population experts in Minnesota to evaluate the USFWS scaup harvest model. The expert panel raised several significant questions concerning the model and recommended that it should not be adopted as harvest strategy. The panel concluded that more work is needed on model development before a new scaup harvest strategy is adopted. The panel also recommended that any new scaup population models developed by the USFWS be reviewed by an independent committee of scaup experts.

But on page 34694 of the Federal Register, the USFWS, commenting on its proposed scaup harvest strategy on June 18th, made the following entry, "We note that no substantive criticisms suggesting that the proposed approach is not valid have been offered."

"Delta whole-heartedly disagrees with the Service's comment that no substantive criticisms have been offered," said Olson, adding that the Service has yet to sufficiently address the concerns and recommendations raised by Delta and other organizations. "We convened an expert scaup panel -- some of the most highly respected biologists in waterfowl management -- to evaluate the Service's scaup harvest model and its conclusions were both substantive and offered to the Service."

The spring breeding population of scaup (which includes both greater and lesser scaup, also called bluebills) has declined since the early 1970s. The population reached a record high of almost 8 million birds in 1972 and stood at roughly 7 million in 1984. In 2006, the scaup population reached an all-time low of 3.2 million birds. Last year, the population increased modestly (3.4 million) but was still well below the long-term average.

But Delta Scientific Director Dr. Frank Rohwer says that scaup remain one of the most abundant duck species in North America and that the birds' annual harvest is only a fraction of that sustained by other abundant species. Rohwer also notes that biologists who attended two major scaup scientific workshops in recent years agreed that the cause of the population decline was likely caused by habitat changes, not hunting.

"It's highly unlikely that hunter harvest has been a major factor in the scaup decline," said Rohwer. "Delta has a long history of taking a conservative stance when it comes to waterfowl harvest, but in this instance there is no meaningful evidence to suggest harvest is a limiting factor. If that were the case, we wouldn't be raising questions about the Service's scaup harvest strategy."

To fully understand why scaup are declining, Rohwer says the USFWS needs to commit more money and manpower to study the problem. "We need to figure out why scaup are doing so poorly in some parts of the Boreal forest," he said. "The Service needs to step up and initiate a comprehensive banding program to figure out survival and harvest rates, but most importantly we need to develop alternative population models, reevaluate all existing scaup data, and reach a consensus on a harvest strategy before we place such severe harvest restrictions on diver hunters. Remember, scaup counts are still well above 3 million birds, so there's no need for panic."

Delta Senior Vice President John Devney cut his teeth hunting scaup on some of Minnesota's most storied big-water diver lakes. He says if the scaup bag limit is reduced, the fallout could be disastrous.

"I'm fearful we're going to lose one of our greatest constituencies for scaup and scaup habitat —- diver hunters," he said. "Scaup hunters are a unique breed. Most covet the rich culture and timeless traditions of diver hunting. And they'll hunt the big water in some of the foulest weather imaginable. But if we prematurely reduce the bag limit, I'm extremely worried we'll see a lot of 18-foot duck boats and black and white decoys for sale."

Devney also noted that the 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation showed that waterfowl hunter numbers had dropped 27 percent since 2001. "We don't want to exacerbate that trend," he said. "That would be a tragic mistake."

Added Devney: "Delta Waterfowl is committed to working with the USFWS to refine its scaup population model. We're also funding a Ph.D student to look at scaup population models."

According to a USFWS press release dated June 27th, a recommendation for this fall's hunting season length and daily bag limit will be made after the next Service Regulations Committee meeting in late July.

Editors: For more information, contact Delta Waterfowl Scientific Director Frank Rohwer at 701-471-6185, or see www.deltawaterfowl.org.