Prairie Breeding Grounds Soaked, Duck Population at All-time High
John Devney, Vice President of U.S. policy on 06/30/2011
Duck hunters will find plenty to cheer about in the annual breeding population and habitat survey, which was released earlier today.
Conducted each May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service, this year’s survey reveals the second-highest pond count and a record 45.6 million ducks, the most since the survey was started in 1955. Blue-winged teal, shovelers and redheads soared to record levels, and if that’s not enough, mallard, pintail, canvasback and gadwall numbers rose substantially from 2010.
But not all is well across the U.S. and Canadian prairies.
While water is great for ducks, excessive snowpack and heavy spring rains produced extreme flooding across much of the prairie breeding grounds. From the Canadian prairies to the Dakotas and eastern Montana, tens of thousands of homeowners have been displaced by swollen rivers, millions of acres of cropland remain unplanted and hundreds of miles of roads are under water.
“Our hearts go out to all those affected by flooding this spring,” says Delta President Rob Olson.“This has been an indescribable hardship for the people living in the Prairie Pothole Region.”
The closely watched May ponds total, the second-highest ever, doesn’t do justice to the unprecedented flooding still terrorizing residents of the breeding grounds. Across the U.S. side of the region, the last three years have been the wettest since pond counts began. The 3.2 million ponds inventoried in the U.S. this spring were the most on record.
The 4.9 million ponds in prairie Canada were 43 percent more than the long-term average, which dates back to 1955, and brings the total pond count across the traditional survey area to 8.1 million, second only to the 8.3 million recorded in 1974.
Not surprisingly, all that water attracted a record number of ducks. The 12.5 million breeding ducks that settled in the eastern half of the Dakotas was the most ever, and was 172 percent above average.
The Canadian prairies got drenched this year and, accordingly, attracted significantly more ducks than last year: Alberta saw a 60 percent jump in pond numbers and 66 percent more ducks, Manitoba was 72 percent wetter with 41 percent more ducks and Saskatchewan’s pond count rose 18 percent and attracted 56 percent more ducks.
Olson was quick to point out that wet conditions don’t create more ducks, they just attract birds that on dry years would settle elsewhere. “The bush country is empty because all the birds are having a party on the prairies,” he says.
Species reaching all-time highs include blue-winged teal at a whopping 8.9 million, northern shovelers at 4.6 million and redheads with 1.4 million. Mallards improved to 9.2 million; pintails jumped to 4.4 million, the highest level since 1980; gadwalls rose to 3.3 million; canvasbacks climbed to 692,000, and scaup improved slightly to 4.3 million.
Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl’s scientific director, says the uninterrupted wet cycle that began in the U.S. in 1994 is only part of the reason ducks numbers have skyrocketed in recent years, citing millions of acres of dense nesting cover provided by the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and an outbreak of mange that has kept fox numbers in check as other important factors.
“The eastern Dakotas have become the Mecca for prairie ducks,” says Rohwer, a Louisiana State University professor who admits he’s excited about the coming hunting season. “Pintails have reversed their long-term decline, driven largely by very high counts in the eastern Dakotas. Blue-winged teal are off the charts--yikes. Shovelers are at an all-time high and gadwalls and mallards are up.”
To demonstrate his point about productivity in the U.S., Dr. Rohwer did some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on the survey results. “I added up the number of mallards, gadwalls and blue-winged teal for each region and divided them by the pond counts to get a pairs-per-pond figure,” he says.
“The eastern Dakotas had 3.7 pairs per pond, while southern Saskatchewan had just 1.78. Southern Manitoba and Alberta were slightly lower than Saskatchewan.”
Rohwer’s calculations explain why flooding isn’t the only reason for long faces on the breeding grounds: Waterfowl managers are increasingly concerned about the long-term ability of the U.S. prairies to produce ducks in light of budget cuts being considered by Congress. If approved, those cuts could put CRP and numerous other conservation programs responsible for this year’s eye-popping numbers at risk.
“Mother Nature has dealt the pothole region a winning hand with all this water,” says Delta Senior Vice President John Devney. “When the prairies get this wet, it sets off a chain reaction of positive outcomes--an abundance of small wetlands attracts more ducks to prime breeding areas, and those ducks are more inclined to re-nest and brood survival increases. Re-nesting is important because it offsets predation.
“But the U.S. prairies won’t stay wet forever, and if we continue to lose CRP, native grasslands and wetlands, duck numbers could go down even faster and more dramatically than they’ve come up in recent years. Worse, without adequate nesting cover, populations will be slower to recover.”
The importance of CRP on the U.S. side of the “duck factory” becomes more apparent with each passing breeding season.
For the third year in a row, more pintails settled in the eastern Dakotas (1.5 million) than in prairie Saskatchewan (1.1 million). Pintail numbers in the eastern Dakotas were a whopping 209 percent higher than average.
Blue-winged teal numbers were knock-your-socks-off good. The 8.9 million blue-wings were the most ever, and 61 percent of those ducks set up housekeeping on the U.S. side of the region--179 percent more than the norm.
Redheads have also taken advantage of nesting conditions in the U.S. The 1.4 million breeders recorded this year set yet another record, and 654,000 of them--241 percent more than average--settled in the U.S.
Northern shovelers also set a record at 4.6 million, 98 percent higher than the long-term average. Shoveler numbers actually dropped across the eastern Dakotas, but rose dramatically in the prairie provinces and the western Dakotas.
The mallard breeding population rose less than some observers expected to a very respectable 9.2 million, with 3.4 million of those in the U.S. Surveyors counted 18 percent more canvasbacks than a year ago, gadwalls were the third highest ever and scaup climbed to the highest level since 1999, which is still 15 percent below average.
Species of concern are the American wigeon, which fell 14 percent from last year to 2.1 million and is now 20 percent below average, and green-winged teal, off 17 percent to 2.9 million but still 47 percent higher than average. “High duck numbers bode well for good production and a strong fall flight,” Devney says.