The Gold Standard

What does the future hold for America's most popular and successful duck?

The mallard is the yardstick by which most waterfowlers and managers measure ducks. Like so many other matters of public opinion, this is more a result of politics than rational analysis.

The mallard hasn't always been the most abundant duck species. In 1955, the first year of the modern waterfowl surveys, the population estimate for pintails was higher than the estimate for mallards, and it's probable that these two puddle ducks regularly exchanged the title of "most abundant" when the prairie landscape was friendlier to waterfowl than it is now. Estimates of waterfowl populations were unreliable before 1955, but reports made by nineteenth century gunners along the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways leave some reason to believe that numbers of bluebills and even canvasbacks may have rivaled numbers of mallards before the assault on America's wetlands began.

When it comes to public relations, however, the mallard has no peer. The drake has a face no one could forget. Not many people recognize the rings on a ringneck or the shovel on a shoveler, but the greenhead is a bird anybody can identify.

The Ever-Popular Mallard

Nearly everybody in America has had regular encounters with mallards. While they prefer to nest in the prairie potholes of the northern heartland, greenheads breed as far north as the shore of the Bering Sea in northwestern Alaska and as far south as southern Texas, from California coast to the Chesapeake. No bird could exploit this incredible variety of habitats without being adaptable, but the mallard's flexibility is even greater than its immense range suggests.

Last September, I was chasing elk in one of Wyoming's mountain wilderness areas. I bushwhacked through a mile of dense lodgepole forest to reach a small lake and meadow, ringed with timber. Over the years, I've killed eight bulls within sight of that lake. I've watched moose browse the willow edges, listened to wolves howl from the ridge, and stepped aside as grizzlies ambled through the huckleberry. There were no elk on the meadow this year, but the lake had its usual brood of mallards, finishing the molt and preparing for migration.

These wilderness mallards offer an emphatic counterpoint to other greenheads I have known. Many years ago, I was staring out a window on the second floor of Russell Labs on the University of Wisconsin campus, thinking about fishing instead of plant taxonomy, when a fairly large bird flew around the corner of the Steenbock Library next door and hovered 10 feet from the edge of the flat roof.

It was a mallard hen. She had just finished hatching a brood on top of the library, and the just-dry ducklings were milling around on the gravel roof while their mother encouraged them to jump. It was three stories to the well-watered bluegrass slope below, and the ducklings were less than enthusiastic about the leap, but the hen insisted until, one by one, they took the plunge, flapping their tiny wings frantically and falling about as fast as ping-pong balls wrapped in down. When the last one bounced to a stop on the lawn, mama landed and led the brood in the direction of Lake Mendota. She stopped traffic when she crossed Observatory Drive with that little procession.

At home in cropland, prairie, black timber, or tundra; wilderness or city park; Arctic or Sunbelt, the mallard is exceptionally well equipped to survive the damage we have inflicted-- and continue to inflict--on wild places in America. In the 52 years since surveys of continental waterfowl populations have been made, mallards have been typically been the most numerous duck. The highest estimate of mallard numbers came in 1958--11.2-million breeding birds, more or less--with another peak in 1999 at about 10.8-million. The lowest estimate on record was 5.1-million birds in 1965 with other low ebbs in the mid-1980s and early 1990s.

As we all know, the peaks and valleys of mallard abundance are driven by two huge forces--the amount of water that falls on the northern prairies and the amount of cover surrounding the water. Waterfowl managers, hunters, and other conservationists have tried to influence both variables, with remarkable success, considering the size of the job, but there are forces at work across the continent that dwarf our efforts. When these forces align with conservation, we see huge progress; when they act against conservation, it's hard to avoid losses.

Consider just a few of these threats. There is no doubt that human use of fossil fuel is warming the planet. Climate models suggest that the net result in the northern prairies will be warmer, drier weather, which does not augur well for mallards or other ducks.

The combination of warmer weather and genetically modified crops is bringing row-crop agriculture to the northern prairies, a trend that is eliminating the native grasslands that have provided crucial habitat for mallards and other puddle ducks. The move toward ethanol and biodiesel fuels is increasing demand for corn and soybeans, and these burgeoning markets will put further pressure on upland duck habitat. If cellulosic ethanol becomes feasible, the demand for switchgrass and other "feedstocks" will increase, and many stands of cover may be mowed.

At the same time, traditional conservation efforts themselves face some unsettling trends. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of hunters who pursue migratory birds has dropped by 25-percent in the last decade. Since these sportsmen provide the backbone of funding and political support for waterfowl conservation, the decline is troubling. And the strains on the federal budget are putting pressure on Congress to cut conservation programs.

An Expert's Perspective

If these forces continue in their current alignment, how will they affect North American mallards? I put the question to Dr. Rollin Sparrowe. Dr. Sparrowe spent 22 years on migratory bird research with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, finally serving as chief of the Migratory Bird Management Office, the unit that oversees the management of ducks and geese across the nation. He was a key member of the committee that drafted and implemented the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1986. After his retirement from federal service, Dr. Sparrowe became president of the Wildlife Management Institute, and he now serves on the board of directors of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Few people in the world understand American waterfowl and waterfowl management as well as Rollin Sparrowe does.

"I think the mallard is one of those species that likely would out-survive people," Sparrowe observes, but whether we have enough to support widespread hunting is another issue. He cites an observation by Alberta waterfowl biologist Bob Andrews, who helped draft the original North American Waterfowl Plan. According to Sparrowe, Andrews thought that "we have all the mallards we need right now--this was in the lows of the '80s--for people to look at and see huge flocks and be delighted with. The only reason we need more is because people still want to hunt.


en I was writing and later implementing the waterfowl plan," he says, "I had become convinced that we have to do all of that to keep what we have, let alone rebuild to gold standard levels. Nothing I see changes my mind about that. Their habitat is not growing in spite of all the work we're doing."

Sparrowe is worried by attitudes that are emerging among hunters, the notion that we have plenty of game, that all we have to do is recruit another generation of hunters to shore up political support for the sport. He sees wildlife management itself on the verge of huge new challenges.

"I think we have some serious problems with attitudes toward wildlife, wildlife management, how much success we've had, and what we need to do with the future. A lot of people in the hard-core hunting community . . . seem to think the job of management is done. The idea that the job is done is crazy."

The recent controversies surrounding federal authority over isolated wetlands provide just one example of the difficulties ahead.

"Here we are having to fight yet another version of the wetland battles," Sparrowe points out, "and we keep thinking we've made progress.

"One of these days the Farm Bill is going to go away," he adds. "The handwriting is on the wall, socially and economically. That kind of subsidy level is going to go away. That was THE major input that helped us recover ducks after the lows of the '80s."

In the end, the hunter's interest in the mallard confers a special responsibility for the bird. Four or five generations of hunter/conservationists understood that and acted accordingly. We have an obligation to remember that commitment. At the same time, the mallard faces a host of difficulties that may be unprecedented in variety, complexity, and sheer magnitude. Waterfowlers by themselves may simply not have the reach to maintain harvestable surpluses of mallards. It may be time to find new approaches to the attaining traditional goals of conservation--it's certainly no time to lose interest.

"The mallard does a good job of evolving and adjusting and adapting," he says, "and I think those of us who care about it are going to have to continue to do the same."

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