October 09, 2022
It’s been quite a roller coaster ride over the past 24-months, a journey full of ups and downs, encouraging headlines one day and sobering reports of a crash the next. And no, we’re not talking about the state of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, although we certainly could be.
Instead, this discussion will center itself upon the state of the duck factory and how duck production looks for 2022 after a couple of topsy turvy years that have seen soaring highs and precipitous declines in the northern U.S. and prairie Canada, the fabled duck factory of waterfowl production for a great portion of North America.
Before we take a closer look at this year’s more encouraging prospects, it’s important to note where we’ve been over the past two years. In the spring of 2020, North America’s duck factory was coming off a long run of success with generally high springtime production and solid fall flight numbers that made duck hunters a happy lot. But then came the great pandemic, and with it, a curtailment or total stop to many of the things that we had come to take for granted.
That included the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, a joint effort every May by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service. In its simplest form, the aerial survey simply observes the number of singles, pairs, and flocks for each duck species, along with the number of ponds, or seasonal and permanent wetlands, that are holding water.
Aside from a broad-brush view of how the ducks are doing each spring, this data collection gives biologists some critical information in the form on an annual index to the number of breeding ducks for each species and the status of habitat as found in the yearly effort. That work allows biologists in the various flyways to monitor population trends and ultimately set hunting season framework and bag limits within the Adaptive Harvest Management efforts in place across North America.
In the best years, it’s a vast undertaking to conduct the spring surveys that have been in place since 1955, work that covers some 1.3 million square miles of Canada, Alaska, and the northern U.S. According to the Central Flyway Council, the exhaustive effort involves two trained biologists, one who is also a skilled pilot, as they fly traditional routes and count waterfowl and ponds on each side of the airplane at an altitude of roughly 100 to 150 feet above the ground. As they count ducks and ponds, observations are recorded into a computer file that also notes the GPS location of the observation.
The problem for biologists over the past two years is that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a full stop to the data collection effort, thanks to social distancing, lockdowns, and the shuttering of the border between the U.S. and Canada. In short, there was simply no data collected for two years straight, although biologists were able to rely on the significant information collected in previous years.
Compounding the data loss problem was the fact that the duck factory went from being wet in the spring of 2020 to being wickedly dry during the spring of 2021. That led to whispers and fears that a crash could be forthcoming in the duck factory, one that would make life even more troublesome for fall duck hunters and their whining retrievers.
North Dakota was a prime example of this precipitous plunge, moving from high water conditions in the spring of 2020 to near record drought conditions only 12 months later. While federal biologists in both the U.S. and Canada couldn’t conduct their annual survey work, the North Dakota Game and Fish was able to conduct their own statewide surveys in both 2020 and 2021. While only a snapshot from one state, it at least gave waterfowl managers elsewhere a glimpse of what was happening in a portion of the duck factory.
“Conditions were not good statewide (in 2021) and, after a high count in 2020, the decline in wetlands counted represented the largest one-year percentage-based decline in the 74-year history of the survey,” said Mike Szymanski, the migratory game bird management supervisor for NDGF, in a widely publicized news release.
While noting that North Dakota’s wetland index had declined by 80 percent from 2020 to 2021, and that the state’s fall flight would be reduced by some 36 percent last fall, Szymanski then added this thought: “At this point, we are not overly concerned about undue negative impacts of the harvest on ducks during this season (2021), but we’ll re-evaluate the situation during the federal regulations process. One year of drought won’t be a disaster for ducks, but we could have issues if these conditions continue into next year.”
And that brings us back full circle to where this column began, where things appear to be on the upswing for 2022. Because even though the survey work and habitat assessment was underway as of press time for this column, biologists were smiling big after late winter snowstorms and heavy spring rainfall recharged a good portion of the duck factory in short order.
It all started with a historic April blizzard, one that buried North Dakota under up to 36-inches of snowfall. A subsequent snowstorm and then heavy spring storms in the prairies has given habitat conditions quite the sudden boost according to biologists with the continent’s two major waterfowl and wetland conservation organizations.
“Yes, it was quite a weather event,” said Ducks Unlimited chief scientist Dr. Steve Adair, who noted that he and colleagues in his Bismarck, N.D. office were excitedly texting each other in April, sending pictures of huge snowdrifts and being encouraged by the massive late season storm. “Often, it takes something like that to turn it around after the kind of drought we were in last year.”
Adair admits that there had been some angst among biologists last year after the severe drought: “It’s been 30 years since we’ve had a drought like last year. A whole generation of waterfowlers and biologists have never seen the lean times like we had in the late 1980s, and there was concern and wondering if that’s the direction we were heading again. But as of now, it looks like we’ve had a bit of a reprieve for this year and that better conditions could return.”
Reports are also indicating that as the spring thaw began in earnest, there’s good news coming in from places like the Boreal Forest region of Canada, in Alaska, and back east in places like Ontario.
“Record-setting spring blizzards have significantly improved waterfowl breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canadian prairies,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam. “Runoff from April snowstorms in North Dakota and Manitoba have filled shallow wetlands, attracting breeding pairs and initiating a strong breeding effort in the eastern Prairie Pothole Region.
“Unfortunately, spring snow missed key prairie regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Montana, and those areas continue to be dry. Farther north, winter snowfall was above average in the Boreal Forest and Alaska, which will again yield quality breeding conditions in those landscapes. However, low production during the 2021 drought likely means this year’s breeding population will be one of the smallest in over a decade. Upcoming surveys by state and federal partners will provide a more quantitative assessment of population levels and wetland conditions.”
All of this is part of a giant puzzle on the duck factory landscape, since water isn’t all that’s necessary to fuel duck production and drought not only results in a lesser annual fall flight, but also accelerates habitat loss.
“Absolutely, that’s an even worse thing when you get into a drought situation because once wetlands are drained, that’s a permanent drought condition,” noted Adair. “No matter how much rain and snow you get after that, those wetlands that are permanently drained will never hold water again. Our job is to maintain them because when they are wet, they produce ducks, and when they are dry, they recharge for the future. So, they are (very) important and time periods like this recent one remind us that we’ve still got more work to do for the ducks.”
Dr. Scott Petrie, the CEO of Delta Waterfowl, echoed many of the above sentiments, giving an enthusiastic update on spring habitat conditions in a video that aired on the organization’s website in mid-May as survey work began. As he stood in front of a flooded field in North Dakota, Petrie said there were many more wet spots like it across the duck factory and that the elements for a year of good duck production were in place.
“As ducks return to the prairies, they are finding much better habitat conditions compared to last year,” he said. “Ample water across the prairie pothole region will provide ducks and geese with abundant nesting options this spring. A winter and spring of record setting snowstorms and precipitation has changed the prairie landscape from one of severe and extreme drought to what the Delta team now describes as “Water, water, everywhere.”
That’s led to initially enthusiastic reports from Delta biologists in much of the northern U.S. and southern Canada. Reports are also initially good in the eastern portions of Canada which supplies much of the Atlantic Flyway, as well as in Alaska, where good breeding conditions may help offset mixed habitat reports in central and southern portions of the Pacific Flyway.
“Looking at the whole picture across the prairie states and provinces, we are hopeful, and even excited, about the potential for much better duck production this year,” said Petrie, even suggesting that 2022 could be a potential banner year.
And positive proof that for duck hunters, the roller coaster ride never stops from one season to the next.