For the second straight year in 2012, the waterfowl population hit an all-time high. But don't be fooled. Threats quietly lurk that could send it crashing in a hurry.
It seems only human nature to look back on a bygone era with increasingly fonder memories. Certainly this is true of duck hunters. How many times have you heard an old-timer declare waterfowling will never be what it was in the days of waxed-cotton jackets and Belgian Brownings? In many ways this is true, but not in terms of bird numbers.
Last year's U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey indicated an estimate of 48.6 million breeding ducks — the most ever recorded since surveys began in 1955. It was the second straight year the record was surpassed, and just the sixth time since 1955 that the overall population totaled more than 40 million birds. Mallards — the most heavily harvested duck in North America — had their best population total since 1999. Northern shovelers, green-winged teal and blue-winged teal all hit record highs.
Add to that liberal season lengths and bag limits and — sorry dad — there's arguably never been a better time to be a duck hunter. What scares me is how quickly all that could change.
"I find little security in last year's record breeding population of ducks," said Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist Dale Humburg. "A couple of wet years on the breeding grounds have masked significant, ongoing threats to the landscapes and resources waterfowl depend on. We should not be lulled into a false sense of security."
In other words, a lot of our current duck boom can be attributed to plain old luck — heavy rains and snow pack providing ample wetlands. Here then are the top threats to waterfowl populations, a few of which could wreak havoc in just one or two breeding cycles.
We are in the midst of a wet cycle that has masked habitat issues and severe wetland losses. According to DU, we've lost about two-thirds of the wetlands that once existed. Yet ample rains and winter snow pack have allowed spring duck production to remain high, even in intensively farmed areas that would ordinarily offer poor nesting habitat.
This is largely the case because exorbitant precipitation creates temporary and seasonal wetlands — warm, shallow areas thriving with high-protein invertebrates that feed hungry hens. Healthy hens produce good egg clutches and are better equipped to re-nest.
An increase in temporary wetlands also means more nesting opportunities in a given area. Hens are territorial nesters known to guard their turf. They can nest in fairly dense numbers if numerous temporary wetlands are available. However, a drought could leave all but one or two ponds in that same area. A couple hens will claim the ponds, but the rest are out of luck.
Wet springs increase duckling survival, too. When wetlands expand into the surrounding cover, ducklings have a place to hide. On the other hand, in drought conditions potholes recede toward the middle of the bowl, which means ducklings are easy targets for mink and other key predators.
In a drought or even a year of average precipitation, we'll have fewer seasonal wetlands and are likely to see North America's true wetland capacity revealed. The feared result is hungry hens, a vast reduction in available nesting habitat and well-fed predators.
Misguided Flood Control
Those same rains that have benefited ducks over the last several years have led to horrendous flooding, especially in the Midwest.
"The cause of the flooding is pretty darned simple," John Devney, senior director of U.S. Policy for Delta Waterfowl, wrote in a blog post. "The landscape has been dramatically changed. The wetlands and grasslands that subdued the flooding are gone. Agricultural drainage projects rush water off the land into ditches, then into rivers and, at times, into schools, homes and businesses."
According to DU, one acre of wetland can store over 1.5 million gallons of floodwater. Yet what do we do every time there's a major flood? Communities demand federal dollars to raise the levees and divert water. In essence, the actual cause of the flooding is looked to as the solution, and the result is as bad for people as it is for waterfowl.
Can a balance between agriculture and wetland conservation be found? Sure, if farmers — who are simply responding to market demands — are provided with appropriate incentives. Unfortunately, the Farm Bill is expected to have a scaled-back conservation component — if Congress ever quits stalling and brings it to the table.
Devney thinks we can do better.
"We can make our farmers the most productive and profitable in the world," he said. "But we need to also find money for conservation, to show the public cares about wetlands, grasslands, ducks, pheasants, meadowlarks and avocets."
Unfortunately, cuts to the Farm Bill — in particular its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) component — are nothing new. CRP alone is responsible for producing 2.2 million ducks per year, yet top duck-producer North Dakota has lost 22 percent of its CRP since 2007. How might the loss of CRP fields and native prairie grasses affect waterfowl?
A study by Ron Reynolds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found the threshold for nest success is a prairie of at least 40 percent grassland habitat. Above that number, hens have plenty of cover to hide their nests from predators, and the waterfowl population increases. Below it, the majority of nests are lost to egg-eating predators.
When we lose grass, we lose ducks. Trouble is, we're losing grassland faster than we're saving it in the Prairie Pothole Region, where ducks nest as densely as 100 breeding pairs per square mile. Fortunately, heavy rains have helped many species overcome the loss, but it may explain the decline of the northern pintail. The pintail is a grassland nester that prefers shallow, season wetlands — the most easily drained and converted to agriculture — which may explain why we've lost more than 50 percent of the pintail population since 1993.
Predator Boom Amidst Poor Habitat
When grassland is converted to farmland, grassland nesters such as mallards, gadwalls, teal and shovelers use any available habitat, including fence lines and roadside ditches. It's a delightful arrangement for foxes and skunks, which travel the convenient corridors picking off nests.
This all-too-common occurrence is exacerbated by a booming predator population. According to Delta Waterfowl, raccoons — a major consumer of duck eggs — weren't found in Canada prior to the 1950's, when human homes gave them means to survive the winters. Other key duck predators, including foxes and skunks, have increased steadily since the removal of larger predators from the landscape. Grizzlies and wolves, for instance, had little affect on waterfowl, but kept populations of smaller predators in check.
What is to be done? Predator-trapping studies by Delta Waterfowl seem to show some promise. Delta has trapped predators on heavily farmed properties as large as 144 square miles, and found a two- to three-fold increase in nest success.
This strategy, however, is not without critics. DU argues that trapping isn't cost-effective and realistically can't benefit ducks on a large scale.
Where DU and Delta do see eye-to-eye is on the need for grassland and wetland conservation. If you have sufficient grass and water, predation is a non-issue. However, in regions where conservation fails, it's yet to be seen whether waterfowl managers of the future will dismiss or look more closely at trapping.
Fewer Hunters Mean Less Conservation
According to DU, the U.S. and Canada have only half the duck hunters as they did in the 1970s. The median age of hunters is increasing and, for a variety of reasons, we're doing a poor job recruiting the next generation of waterfowlers. Here's a disgusting stat to illustrate the point: The average kid now spends 52 hours per week on electronic media and less than 40 minutes outside.
Overall, there are fewer duck hunters, while society is experiencing a growing disconnect with outdoor conservation. Combined with the fiscal crisis, such attitudes don't bode well for the funding of CRP or 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.
Fewer duck hunters also means dwindling sales of Federal Duck Stamps. That, in turn, means fewer federal waterfowl easements. Both Delta and DU are also in favor of raising the price of duck stamps, which hasn't occurred since 1991. In that same time, land values in the Prairie Pothole Region have tripled, dramatically decreasing the program's buying power.
The disturbing reality of these threats is they aren't theoretical, long-term concerns that may impact waterfowl sometime down the road. These issues are poised to dramatically affect ducks right now — just as soon as our lucky streak ends. The question is, will we act before it's too late?