Ducks in the Desert

Drought has parched the Intermountain West for a decade

It's a state wildlife area I've hunted for nearly 30 years. Meg, my Brittany spaniel, worked through the kochia and tumbleweed in her usual methodical fashion as I followed aimlessly, waiting for her nose to dictate a plan of attack. We'd been walking a half-hour or so when she picked up a trail and turned into the wind with a surge of enthusiasm that suggested the scent was hot. A couple of hundred yards later, she pointed hard at the edge of a grassy strip.

A young rooster had finally lost his nerve and squatted in the forlorn hope the old dog would pass him by. I kicked the cover ahead of Meg's nose. The pheasant jumped with a squawk. I anchored him, which was a surprise to all three of us. As Meg sprinted off to pick him up, my eye fell on an odd plywood structure half-buried on the low rise 80 yards to my right.

It was a goose blind, I realized, one of the pits the state had built 20 years ago to help organize the hunt that had once been a major attraction in the fall: Blind No. 10. It occurred to me I had killed geese out this blind -- an unusual circumstance, I thought, as Meg delivered the rooster to hand. Ten years before, I had set two-dozen floating Canada decoys on this very spot, and when I waded out to pick them up, I'd gone over the top of my waders.

What a difference a decade of drought can make. I've watched that area dry down to the cracked mud, watched the cracks fade into dust, watched the kochia pioneer onto the desiccated flats where nothing else would grow. The official goose hunt on this marsh was canceled five years ago for lack of interest and birds.

And that wasn't the only casualty in the area. My favorite early-season marsh off to the east was in slightly better shape because of a state-owned water right, but a water right is of limited use when there's no water. Twenty miles to the west sits a reservoir that was once one of the best spots I've ever seen for Thanksgiving geese and mallards. For the past six years, it hasn't been worth visiting.

Snowpack Lacking
The western edge of the high plains and large chunks of the Intermountain West are just finishing up a decade of drought. It wasn't as intense as the Dust Bowl, but in some places it lasted longer, and the effect on fall waterfowl migration patterns and local movements is significant, especially for ducks. Any waterfowler in this part of the world has learned through hard experience that drought is a regular visitor, but this drought was a reminder of just how long a dry spell can last on the high grasslands, and how empty the prairie is without water.

The most recent drought isn't an isolated phenomenon -- the West has been getting drier for quite some time. My home state, Wyoming, experienced nine years of drought between 1900 and 1950. Between 1950 and 2000, there were 25 years of drought. Like most droughts, they were the result of a lack of rain and snow, and an increase in temperature. In the past century, the average temperature across the West has risen by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The pattern of warmer, drier weather hasn't affected all seasons equally. Researchers at the University of Washington have found that between 1950 and the end of the century, the amount of water contained in snowpack in the Rocky Mountains has declined by almost 16 percent. In the desert interior, water content has dropped by almost 22 percent in the same period.

Mountain snowpack is a natural reservoir in most of the West -- the winter's precipitation is held in the high country and metered out through the spring, summer and early fall. Less snow means less water down in the prairie basins, and as average temperature rises, mountain snow tends to melt earlier. In fact, peak runoff in the West today is as much as three weeks earlier than it was 30 years ago. The result is less water in the intermountain basins, especially in late summer and into fall.

And these basins are important to ducks and geese. As ironic as it seems, some of the country's most famous waterfowl marshes are in the arid West. By the late 19th century, the Bear River marshes in northeastern Utah drew well-heeled sportsmen from as far away as the East Coast. Even today, they are treasured by the waterfowlers of the region. In 2007, snowpack above the marshes was 56 percent of normal, and the pattern of drought stretched back to 1997, with only a couple of years of average moisture.

The details vary, but the overall impact of drought in the past decade has been much the same in other well-known wetlands in Colorado's San Luis Valley, New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley, the playa lakes of the Texas Panhandle and the North Platte River Valley in Wyoming and Nebraska, as well as thousands of more ephemeral wetlands across the western landscape. The loss of these marshes means production of local ducks is less dependable, habitat for wintering ducks and geese is less attractive and hunting opportunity is less predictable.

It was a wet, cool spring in my corner of the West, and the southern plains has been soaked through. The region's most recent brush with drought might already be over, in which case waterfowlers on the high plains and sagebrush basins will have cause to celebrate. In mid-May, mountain snowpack was fair in some places. Utah and Wyoming stand about normal compared to the snowpack over the past 50 years. However, Colorado's snowpack was only 78 percent of normal, and Montana's was only 68 percent of normal.

Predictions for the future aren't optimistic. In its last report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said about the Intermountain West, "Projected warming in the western mountains by the mid-21st century is very likely to cause large decreases in snowpack, earlier snow melt, more winter rain events, increased peak winter flows and flooding and reduced summer flows."

Flow in the Colorado River has declined over the past century, and projections suggest that flow will dwindle further. There's an even a chance the water level in Lake Mead will drop below the outlets on the dam by 2020. Keeping western wetlands wet will be an even greater challenge in the future than it has been in the past 50 years.

Trickle of Hope?
It's worth noting that, as I write this, the dry basin where Meg and I found the pheasant two years ago is full again. If this summer's thunderstorms are generous, there is a chance I might set out goose decoys there this fall. Even more encouraging is the cooperative effort between the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Ducks Unlimited. DU is studying the irrigation system in the area, hoping to find a way to conserve more water for local farmers and waterfowl. With a little luck and enough money, conservationists might find ways to protect these and other wetlands from all but the most severe droughts.

Western hunters have learned to expect a dry year or two. What we'd like to avoid is the kind of long-term decline of marshes like the one we've just been through -- the kind of habitat loss th

at convinces ducks to find other homes and duck hunters to sell their decoys and take up cactus ranching.

In the future, even more than in the past, preserving the West's precious wetlands will take conscious effort and a source of ready cash, and even that won't guarantee the wetlands in the region will withstand the worst of the drought years.

Waterfowl management in the interior West is becoming more complicated. Here's hoping we can rise to the challenge.

Chris Madson hails from Cheyenne, Wyo.

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