When an investor's stock portfolio increases 14 percent from one year to the next, it's time to break out the champagne and fire-up a fine cigar. When waterfowl breeding numbers increase by that same percentage from one year to the next, though, a duck hunter probably needs to be slightly more cautious in celebration. As most experienced waterfowlers know, a favorable summer report from the breeding grounds doesn't necessarily translate into a good hunting season. The vagaries of fall and winter weather usually have more to do with hunter success rates than do actual waterfowl numbers.
Still, there's ample cause for cautious celebration if you're a duck hunter. Adequate snowfall combined with a wet spring across the primary duck breeding grounds of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, the Dakotas and the Great Lakes region to produce the fourth-highest pond count on record across the 1.3-million-acre area surveyed each May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. According to the agency's annual "Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey," released in July, the 2007 pond count was 7 million, 15 percent greater than last year's estimate of 6.1 million and 44 percent higher than the long-term average (1955-2006) of 4.9 million ponds.
Results of the same survey showed that breeding populations of ducks increased 14 percent from 2006 across the survey area, to a total of 41 million birds for the 10 surveyed species—mallard, pintail, blue-winged and green-winged teal, gadwall, shoveler, American widgeon, canvasback, redhead and scaup (greater and lesser combined). That's an impressive 24 percent above the long-term breeding population average during the past 53 years. The breeding population of mallards, the North American waterfowler's favorite species, came in at 8.3 million, mirroring the overall increase of 14 percent from last year, and 11 percent above the long-term average for the species.
"The breeding grounds got wet and five species are at or above record levels," said Rob Olson, president of Delta Waterfowl Foundation. "That's great news."
Most knowledgeable waterfowl biologists concur that the most positive news from the 2007 survey is that redhead, canvasback and northern shoveler populations are at record highs. In fact, canvasbacks are so much improved over the long-term average (53 percent above) that the USFWS season guidelines released in early August allow the individual states to have a two-canvasback daily bag limit in the Atlantic, Mississippi and Pacific flyways. Due to the ongoing "Hunters' Choice" experiment in the Central Flyway, that flyway will continue with a one-bird daily bag limit on cans.
Following the long-established guidelines set 2 decades ago under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the USFWS used the May breeding bird survey numbers to provide the individual states with 2007-08 waterfowl season guidelines under the "liberal" framework. This provided for a 60-day season with a six-duck daily bag in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, 74 days and six ducks (97 days west of the 100th meridian) in the Central Flyway, and 107 days with a seven-duck daily limit in the Pacific Flyway.
If your sole criterion for evaluating the health of the waterfowl population is season length and bag limit structure, it's almost impossible for anyone to look at the above paragraph and conclude anything except that things are just peachy in duck-land these days.
But, it ain't necessarily so. A closer analysis of the distribution of those breeding waterfowl reveals a less rosy picture.
The Saskatchewan parklands were extremely wet this spring and attracted a lot of mallards, but that might not be such a good thing.
"Duck production in the Saskatchewan parklands is only marginal compared to the prairies," Olson said. And since mallard numbers were again lower than desirable on the Canadian prairie, despite the excellent water conditions of the past few years, Olson and others continue to worry about the long-term picture for mallard populations.
"In Saskatchewan, the pond count is up 105 percent from 2004 and is now 52 percent above the long-term average, and Alberta is 68 percent wetter than the long-term average" Olson said. "But despite the better water conditions, mallard numbers are only 4 percent above the long-term average in Saskatchewan, and they're down 24 percent in Alberta." In Manitoba it's no better: The province's pond count is 21 percent above the long-term average, but mallard numbers are only 2 percent above.
So where are these growing numbers of mallards, teal, shovelers, gadwalls, widgeons and canvasbacks coming from? Well, the mallard count in the eastern Dakotas was 138 percent above the long-term average this year, despite the fact that the May pond count revealed only a 23-percent increase.
"Researchers have learned that adult mallards tend to nest fairly close to where they were hatched," said DU waterfowl biologist Mike Checkett. "It's becoming apparent that the United States' Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has no counterpart in Canada, is becoming more and more important as a provider of good waterfowl breeding grounds."
A similar trend is happening with other species.
"The lack of response by pintails in Canada is noteworthy," said Delta Waterfowl's Scientific Director, Dr. Frank Rohwer. "This is the second wettest year on record in Alberta, yet the pintail count was down 47 percent from a year ago and 55 percent from the long-term average. Saskatchewan was down 6 percent for the year and 21 percent long-term. Yet even as the pintail count was dropping in Canada, it was through the roof in the eastern Dakotas. Saskatchewan and Alberta are the traditional pintail factories, but when two-thirds more pintails nest in the eastern Dakotas than Alberta, that tells us something about the importance of CRP.
"Mallards and pintails arrive on the breeding grounds early, when cover is sparse and predators don't have much in the way of alternative prey. CRP provides the big blocks of dense nesting cover mallards and pintails need. Canada doesn't have a program comparable to CRP, and that's why mallard and pintail numbers haven't responded despite the ideal wetland conditions. Historically, most of the continent's ducks originated in Canada, but thanks to CRP, the Clean Water Act and the duck stamp, a significant percentage of today's ducks originate in the United States. It's important that we hang onto the programs responsible for producing those birds."
Despite the looming possible reduction in CRP acreage in the next few years, the outlook for this year's duck season is bright. Provided, of course, that the weather cooperates, that our calling is good, that our decoys are deployed properly and that we shoot well when opportunity presents.
In other words, it's going to be a typical duck season: duck breast one day, duck feathers the next.