2015 Wildfowl Forecast
October 14, 2015
Keep riding the wave, folks. Nothing good lasts forever. Biologists fear there's a crash in duck and goose populations out there in the not-so-distant future. But for at least this year, we are in high cotton.
The 49.5-million ducks that headed to the breeding grounds last spring were the most ever counted. The previous record was last year's 49.2 million.
It seems like we've been saying every year's breeding population is the most ever for the past several years. And we have. The ducks aren't slowing down.
"We just keep blowing the top off the overall duck numbers," said Kent Van Horn, a migratory gamebird ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The breeding population of ducks this year was up about 1 percent over 2014, and is 43 percent above the long-term average from 1955-2014. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the current count of breeding ducks included the most mallards (11.6 million) and green-winged teal (4.1 million) ever documented.
"I can't tell guys enough to get out there," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "It's not going to get any better than this, and someday we're not going to have all these birds."
Hunters are taking notice of the record-high waterfowl numbers. Last year, the number of waterfowl hunters in the U.S. increased over the previous year for the first time in a long time. Some 1.1 million waterfowl hunters loaded their shotguns last season — up from 1.02 million the year before. The number of duck hunters grew from 881,400 in 2013 to 961,500 in 2014. The number of goose hunters climbed from 561,900 in '13 to 616,700 in '14.
Unfortunately, that jump in participation didn't translate to an increase in the number of birds in the bag. The total U.S. duck harvest was estimated at 13.3 million, which was down from 13.7 million in 2013. The goose harvest — which includes all species — was 2.5 million, down from 2.7 million in '13. We all know that just because we show up in a particular spot, it doesn't mean the birds will.
Habitat conditions across North America were pretty good during the spring nesting season. The total pond count was estimated at 6.3 million last spring, which was 12 percent below the 2014 count, but still 21 percent above the long-term average.
In the eastern half of Canada, the birds had it easy. Ontario had areas rated as excellent, good and fair, and then regions to the east was either good or fair. None of the habitat was considered to be in poor shape.
Moving west, there were some pockets of poor habitat. Tiny pieces of prairie in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were deemed to be in poor shape, while the rest of the provinces up into Northwest Territories were considered to be either in good or fair shape. Alaska's important waterfowl nesting grounds were all in excellent shape.
The key areas in the Lower 48 are where the worst conditions existed. Basically all of South Dakota's habitat was rated as poor. Same goes for slices of southern and eastern North Dakota. The rest of North Dakota and Montana were rated as good or fair.
Mike Szymanski, North Dakota Game and Fish Department's migratory gamebird biologist, disputes the "poor" rating for any of North Dakota's waterfowl habitat.
"I saw their map," he said of the USFWS nesting habitat report. "We were fair to good before the rain came (in late spring) and then it just got better. We're sitting pretty decent for duck production.
"I'd say it's similar to 2013, and I don't think anybody said that was a bad year."
The only real change in duck hunting regulations this year is the addition of a second canvasback to the daily bag limit, nationwide. We had a two-bird bag two years ago, then it switched back to one last year, and now we're back up to two again.
"I think anybody should be excited about two canvasbacks," said Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "It's pretty rare."
Conditions on the nesting grounds favored by the continent's various populations of geese were largely favorable. Some places had it better than others. Good to excellent gosling production was expected for goose populations that nest in the western Arctic and Alaska.
Variable-to-average production was expected for populations that nest in the central and eastern Arctic, with average to below-average production expected in areas along western Hudson Bay and Baffin Island, where the winter chill lingered and late ice and snow melt occurred.
"I don't think anyone is going to be hurting for geese this year," said Rocco Murano, waterfowl biologist with South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
Across southern Canada and throughout the U.S., conditions for geese were generally good, with the exception being the central prairies and western states, where dry conditions persisted.
"Overall, production of temperate-nesting Canada geese from most of their North American range was expected to be average," the 2015 USFWS waterfowl report states.
The following is a flyway-by-flyway, wildfowl forecast look at duck and goose population and hunting forecasts for the 2015-16 season. It's shaping up to be another great year for waterfowlers, so like Vrtiska said, "get out there."