June 11, 2021
By Lynn Burkhead
While the U.S. moves back towards normalcy over a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered virtually everything, one area that is still feeling the effects of the coronavirus is surprisingly the world of waterfowling.
That became apparent a few weeks ago in early May when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (also referred to as the Service) announced that for the second year in a row, it would not be participating in the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey that has occurred for decades and is an important part of determining waterfowl numbers and the hunting seasons that follow.
Trouble at the Border
With the border between the U.S. and Canada remaining closed—there is some reason to believe that the border will reopen later this summer—the annual effort of USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service biologists and pilots to canvas the Prairie Pothole breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S. was all but impossible again. “Cancellation of these surveys will impact population estimates and harvest management decisions for most duck and goose species and their populations,” reports a Question and Answer document provided by the USFWS.
“The USFWS, in consultation with the Flyway Councils, will use long-term data from spring/summer monitoring for these species to make regulatory harvest management decisions.” USFWS officials noted that they considered the possibility of conducting only the U.S. portion of the survey this year—which comes up with breeding duck figures for several of the continent’s most common duck species—but in the end decided that the value of such data didn’t justify “…the risk and cost associated with a partial survey in the conterminous United States.”
Since hunting season framework and state decisions within that package have already been made for this upcoming fall, the first potential impact from two years of no data from the breeding grounds wouldn’t happen until the 2022-23 hunting season. But USFWS officials say that hunters shouldn’t worry for now. “The Service fully expects to allow migratory bird hunting during the 2022-23 hunting season,” says the Q&A document. “For species with missing data, the Service will carefully assess expected population abundance and growth rates and allow harvest based on projections derived from long-term data including harvest, survival and reproduction, and population models.”
Dampened by Drought
In the absence of 2021 breeding population and pond count data, the waterfowling world did get a glimpse this week of how the ducks are faring this spring thanks to survey work in North Dakota. In a nutshell, the prairie nesting grounds in 2021 are much drier than the flooded conditions often found in recent years—and the ducks have noticed.
“Very dry conditions, along with a decline in numbers of breeding ducks compared to last year, were found during the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s (NDG&F) 74th annual breeding duck survey,” stated a NDG&F news release. “The 2021 May water index was down 80 percent from 2020, and nearly 68 percent below the 1948-2020 average. The percentage-based change in the number of wetlands holding water is the greatest seen in the history of the survey.”
In short, what a difference a year can make. That’s readily apparent after NDG&F Migratory Game Bird Management Supervisor Mike Szymanski noted that while 2020 was the sixth wettest year seen in the North Dakota survey’s history, the spring of 2021 was the fifth driest on record. “That’s an indication of how dynamic this system is that we work in,” said Szymanski. “We essentially have no temporary and seasonal basins holding water on the landscape right now. And that has huge ramifications for duck production in the state.”
Ducks in a Row
In data gleaned from a Delta Waterfowl news release, North Dakota’s 2021 survey indicates decreases for most major species from a year ago. That includes America’s bread-and-butter duck, the mallard, which decreased by 48.7 percent from a year ago with a breeding figure of 448,116 birds in 2021. While that’s still the 28th highest breeding number in the state’s history, it’s also the lowest number for greenheads in North Dakota since 1993.
Pintails fell to 81,716 breeders, a 65.9 percent decline from last year and some 67.7 percent below the long-term average. American wigeon also declined some 49.1 percent from 2020, down to 32,998 breeders this spring and some 15.4 percent below the long-term average. And green-winged teal dropped by 49.6 percent this year, although the 2021 breeding figure of 34,710 is still some 70.3 percent above North Dakota’s long-term average.
There were a couple of species that provided a glimmer of good news, including blue-winged teal, as their numbers fell by only 9.5 percent. Delta Waterfowl points out that teal prefer seasonal and temporary wetlands and appear to have stayed in the Peace Garden State, while pintails—which use similar breeding habitat—apparently took a look, assessed the conditions, and moved on.
Gadwalls also brought some good news, increasing—that’s right, increasing—by some 47.4 percent from 2020. What’s more, this year’s breeding figure of 649,216 gray ducks in North Dakota is a whopping 109.5 percent above the state’s long-term average. “We have seen these oddities in the gadwall index when coming abruptly from wet conditions to rather dry conditions,” said Szymanski. “Being a late-nesting species, gadwall that won’t breed this year are still in the process of aggregating for departure to more secure molting habitats.”
How about diving ducks? According to the North Dakota data, they remain in decent shape. Redheads dropped 8.3 percent to 186,313 breeders this year but are still 56.5 percent above the long-term average. Bluebills (lesser scaup) fell to 151,603 ducks in 2021, a 44.9 percent fall from last year, but still just above the state’s long-term average. And canvasbacks, which typically nest in Canadian parklands, dropped to 32,686 breeders this spring, a figure that is down 47.5 percent from a year ago but still 19.6 percent above the long-term average.
Hope on the Horizon
So, what does all of this number crunching mean? For starters, a breeding figure of 2.9 million ducks in North Dakota. And besides that, the idea that while there has been a big drop from last spring, the sky isn’t falling yet since North Dakota’s breeding number is still 19 percent above the long-term average and the 48th highest that the state has recorded.
“That’s still a lot of ducks,” agreed Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist for Delta Waterfowl. “The problem is I think this will be a ‘one and done’ year for nesting hens, meaning even prolific renesters like mallards won’t attempt to nest again if their first nest fails. And we know that even in a good year, most nests are lost to predators. There’s also a strong probability that duckling survival will be very low. It’s challenging to make ducks without water.”
North Dakota’s top waterfowl biologist agreed. “If a hen sees an area with poor or declining wetland conditions, she’s going to work under the assumption that there’s no place to raise a brood later,” said Szymanski. “Even though we counted a fairly large number of ducks (2.9 million) on our survey, most of those ducks are not going to nest unless we have a very, very dramatic change on the landscape.”
While the biological jury is still out—and North Dakota’s biologists will conduct additional survey work next month—Rohwer notes that it is possible that hunters could feel the pinch of drier conditions and less ducks later this fall, particularly the further south one hunts. “Duck populations remain strong, but I don’t expect a ton of juveniles in the fall flight,” he said. “Experienced, adult birds are far tougher to decoy, which will challenge hunters — especially in Louisiana, Texas, and other regions of the southern United States. Years with low duck production disproportionately affect hunter harvest in the South.”
While the duck news out of North Dakota is a bit troubling this spring, hunters should remember that the state—and this single year—are simply a part of a bigger picture according to Ducks Unlimited (DU) Chief Scientist Steve Adair. “These weather conditions are an early indicator of the broader drought across the North American prairies,” Adair said in a DU news release. “And while these survey numbers and behavioral observations are sobering and indicate a decline in duck production in North Dakota, we must keep in mind that periodic drought on the prairies is a normal part of the climate cycle. While the drought persists, these periods allow wetlands to recycle nutrients and re-vegetate, setting the stage for a boom in populations when water returns.” Adair notes that ducks respond to drought—like the infamous drought of the late 1980s—by reducing their breeding effort, dispersing to areas with better habitat, or skipping the breeding cycle completely. While conditions are dry in the Prairie Pothole region, it’s possible that other more stable areas like Canada’s Boreal Forest region could provide some production relief for ducks.
The current dry spell also brings a reminder about how fortunate waterfowl and waterfowl hunters have been in recent years, not to mention underscoring the importance of continuing the work of preserving, protecting, and restoring the vital wetland habitats that ducks, geese, and other wildlife species depend upon. “We’ve benefitted from above-average moisture on the breeding grounds for more than two decades, and this drought is a difficult, but necessary, part of the prairie climate cycle,” said Karen Waldrop, DU’s chief conservation officer. “Ducks Unlimited will continue our on-the-ground habitat work across North America to sustain waterfowl during tough times and to set the stage, so when the water returns to the prairies, waterfowl of all species will be able to get back to the record-setting populations we have seen in the recent past.”
Meaning that conditions might not be the best this spring in North America’s fabled Duck Factory, but there should still be plenty of birds waffling down over decoy spreads later this fall. Keep getting the dog and gear ready because duck season is coming before we know it.