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Waterfowl Populations: Will This Last?

Many believe we are on the cusp of the best waterfowl season in generations, but do we owe it more to luck than conservation? 


Why do so many duck hunters turn into depressing old cranks yammering about the “good old days”? Young waterfowlers beware: You will have to deal with such intolerable cynics. They’ll tell you the ducks just don’t fly like they used to; that steel shot has ruined the sport; that it’s not even worth the effort of putting out decoys anymore.

The irony those affected by “Old Duck Hunter’s Disorder” fail to recognize is that there is likely a greater abundance of waterfowl right now than at any point in their lives. The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) survey reveals an estimated 45.6 million breeding ducks, the highest ever recorded since surveys began in 1955. And last season Louisiana waterfowlers brought 2.7 million ducks to bag, an astounding average of 30.6 birds per hunter.

With liberal season lengths and a nationwide limit of six ducks per day, this is arguably the best era to be a duck hunter since the abolition of market gunning. However, it’s very possible this is the result of pure luck, namely a disease outbreak affecting a key predator species and a long favorable weather cycle. Our good fortune has masked a habitat and agriculture policy crisis, and if we are to sustain duck populations at their current levels we must address several conservation issues before Mother Nature deals us a lesser hand.

What Drives Duck Production?
John Devney, senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl, parks our truck at the side of a North Dakota highway in a region known as the Missouri Coteau, a vast grassland whose rich soil is coveted by nesting ducks and agricultural interests alike. A nearby seasonal patch of water just 40 yards in breadth is densely occupied by ducks, notably a hen canvasback, a drake northern shoveler and a drake pintail. Overhead five drake mallards dressed to impress in full, iridescent breeding plumage are in hot pursuit of a hen. It is late May, so the hen likely failed in her initial nesting attempt and now seeks a new mate. The drake who proves himself most capable in this aerobics test known as a “courtship flight” will become her suitor.

The Missouri Coteau is one of the most important habitats on the American side of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR), the 300,000-square-mile “Duck Factory” that stretches from Alberta to Iowa and produces more than half of all North American waterfowl.

“Whether duck populations rise or fall is almost entirely dependant upon whether nests fail or succeed, right here, period,” Devney says, gesturing across a green landscape dotted by shallow, seasonal wetlands that seem to stretch on forever. “People would never believe that this is what drives continental duck production until they see it.”

Delta Waterfowl often touts a study funded by Ducks Unlimited-Canada that found breeding-ground variables such as nest success, duckling survival and the survival of nesting hens account for 76 percent of the annual change in populations of mid-continent (Mississippi and Central Flyway) mallards. Non-breeding ground mortality, which includes hunting harvest and natural wintering-ground mortality, accounts for just 9 percent of the annual change.

Waterfowl require adequate wintering grounds, but the study suggests there is sufficient wintering habitat to support more ducks than the breeding grounds currently provide. So while Ducks Unlimited (DU) and other conservation groups have done much good raising awareness of threatened winter habitat, especially along the Louisiana and Texas Gulf coasts, some people, not surprisingly Delta Waterfowl, argue the bulk of our resources and manpower ought to be poured into prairie nesting habitat.

What makes good nesting habitat? Research by Ron Reynolds for the USFWS found that the break-even point for nesting waterfowl is a landscape of at least 40 percent prairie grass. Below that threshold, the overwhelming majority of nests are lost to egg-eating predators such as skunks, raccoons and foxes, and the waterfowl population experiences a net decrease.

Habitats of greater than 40 percent grass increase the duck population, because they have sufficient cover for hens to hide their nests from predators. These areas must be preserved, and nobody has been more instrumental in this regard than DU. Its long-time strategy of purchasing habitat and managing large, quality waterfowl easements has paid great dividends for waterfowl and hunters over the years.

The trouble is we’re losing good habitat faster than it’s being saved. The conservation component of American agriculture policy, even our once proud Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), is on the verge of breaking. It’s estimated that CRP alone is responsible for producing 2.2 million ducks per year (not to mention an economic net output of $1 billion, according to Pheasants Forever), but top duck-producer North Dakota has lost 22 percent of its CRP since 2007. DU predicts the downward trend will continue in 2012-2013. Another important program under constant threat of elimination is the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which annually provides $47.6 million in matching grants to wetlands projects and has conserved 25 million acres in 20 years.
The PPR’s nutrient-rich soil teems with invertebrates and provides food for nesting hens and their ducklings, but it’s also among the nation’s most highly coveted farmland.

“Somehow nesting hens are able to key on good soil,” Devney says as we stride into a nearby wetland. “We can’t even fully explain how, but the bottom line is they are going to arrive in rich-soil areas whether there’s good nesting grass awaiting them or not.” As if to illustrate the point, a farmer on a John Deere tractor goes about his business in an adjacent field.

Agriculture is not going away, nor would we want it to, and so it will compete with ducks for rich-soil areas in perpetuity. Therefore if we do not prevent CRP’s decline, says Delta, more wetlands will be diverted for crops and fall below the 40 percent grassland threshold, resulting in dead broods and well-fed coyotes.

The loss of habitat in the United States is a serious issue, but it’s nothing compared to Canada’s woes. Far from the pristine wilderness many Americans envision, much of prairie Canada has seen its wetlands drained and its grasslands tied up by cattle ranches. About two-thirds of the PPR is in Canada, and historically Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba produced two-thirds to three-fourths of all continental mallards. Yet by the 1990s fewer than two out of every five mallards nested north of the border and in 2009, for the first time ever, more ducks overall (14 million) nested in the United States than Canada (12.5 million). The trend has become more marked since.

Duck populations are nowhere near the level they could be if Canada had a CRP-equivalent­­—one such attempt, the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program, has shown some promise.
Fortunately the United States has picked up the slack for Canada in a big way, producing more ducks than ever before. Shouldn’t it give us pause, however, that ducks are nesting in such density on the smaller, American side of the PPR? The sobering reality is that the United States is incapable of continuing to produce enough ducks to counteract Canada’s deficiencies, but for the last 17 years we’ve been really lucky.

The key factors influencing annual variation in populations of mid-continent mallards: Note that three breeding-ground variables account for 76 percent of the yearly change. (Based on data compiled by Ducks-Unlimited Canada.)


A 17-Year Lucky Streak
How have the ducks managed to overcome sundry habitat issues to break population records? The good fortune dealt to us by Mother Nature is two-fold: a widespread outbreak of the mange among red foxes and a lengthy wet cycle.

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1 Response to Waterfowl Populations: Will This Last?

eggbert wrote:
October 15, 2011

the world I an amazing place