January 02, 2022
By Jace Bauserman
Duck numbers ebb and flow, and duck hunters are accustomed to years when production is low. The big problem: Production, in general, has been down for several years, and due to a pair of severe droughts that plagued the U.S. and Canada in 2021, a poor crop of juveniles is likely.
According to Ducks Unlimited (DU) Director of Conservation Planning, Dr. Mark Petrie, a pair of droughts hammered duck production during the summer of 2021, and hunters should know that both droughts will directly impact duck numbers as well as how ducks use different flyways.
"The main drought," Petrie said, "was the drought that hit the Canadian and U.S. prairies. This is thought to have been the worst drought in this area since the 1980s." Of course, this locale is a top duck hatchery, and traditionally, one of the most waterfowl-rich destinations in the world. Though areas in the region have experienced isolated droughts in the Dakotas, Canadian prairies, and the like over the years, this drought is rampant and covers a massive land area.
Petrie pointed out that duck hunters need to know this, as many have never experienced the adverse effects of drought such as this. "It's been 30-plus years since we've seen it this bad. There are still many waterfowlers out there that experienced the widespread drought in the 80s, but many members of the waterfowl nation have never seen it like this. We've been lucky. Thirty or 35 years is a long time to go without a significant drought that will seriously impact duck numbers. The Central and Mississippi Flyways rely heavily on the prairies for production and will feel the effects of the drought."
Naturally, the Pacific and Atlantic Flyways will see a dip in numbers, but according to Petrie, these areas don't rely so heavily on prairie production.
The second drought of 2021, which has been less publicized and talked about, is the western drought. This drought is purely a Pacific Flyway issue. This drought will have a direct impact on fall migrating and wintering waterfowl across the flyway.
"In the U.S. portion of the Pacific Flyway, there are three key landscapes that support most of the ducks during the fall and winter," Petrie said. "Those landmarks are the Klamath Basin, Great Salt Lake, and California's Central Valley. About 60 percent of all birds in the Pacific Flyway winter in the Central Valley, but they arrive there through a pair of basic migration routes—the Klamath Basin and east to west through the Great Salt Lake. Twenty-five percent of the western U.S. was in the highest drought category possible during the summer of 2021. This category is dubbed as an Exceptional Drought. All three of the areas mentioned were classified in this category."
The Klamath Basin, which supports a pair of key duck refuges—Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge— typically support the highest density of migrating fall waterfowl in the world. In a typical year, this pair of refuges have about 40,000 acres of wetlands between them. This fall/winter, these two destinations will have less than 2,000 acres. Both are nearly dry.
"The Great Salt Lake is another story," said Petrie. "Most all of the wetlands exist on the lake's eastern fringe. We have been monitoring lake levels since 1847, and during the summer of 2021, the lake reached its lowest recorded lake level in history."
Roughly 350,000 acres of the Great Salt Lake is referred to as unmanaged wetlands. Then, there are about 150,000 acres of managed wetlands. Most of the controlled areas are public hunt areas explicitly managed for waterfowl. The 350,000 acres of unmanaged wetlands were gone by the end of summer 2021. According to DU, about 1/3 of the managed acres are expected to be dry going into the fall. If you crunch the numbers, between 100,000 and 125,000 acres will have water underneath them.
Typically, water starts being added to the waterfowl habitat beginning in August and continues to through November. Petrie spent time this summer talking to refuge managers and other area personnel. The conclusion, based on data, is that the two main habitats in the Central Valley—managed wetlands and winter flooded rice—will be in bad shape.
"We have about 200,000 acres of managed wetlands, both public and private, and 340,000 acres of winter flooded rice," said Petrie. Of the 200,000 acres of managed wetlands, only about half will be flooded by opening day." Petrie pointed out that rain, which can’t be forecast, can help things out in a hurry. More of this acreage will be flooded by winter if rain hits, but this will depend heavily on precipitation. Hefty rains, which are not uncommon in December and January, can flood things in a hurry.
The flooded rice, however, could be the more significant issue. Of the 340,000 acres of rice that is usually underwater, providing carb-rich feed for migrating ducks, only 80,000 to 100,000 acres will be flooded. The wet footprint will look much different from previous years.
Ready for some good news? Ducks are resilient. Petrie noted that ducks are built for drought. "Don't get me wrong, this is bad," Petrie said. "However, I'm not a sky-is-falling kind of guy. We've seen things like this before. The important thing is that we hold the line, and when the water does come back, we respond quickly and work to create the type of habitat we had. We don't want to lose any ground. Ducks will bounce back quickly."
It is expected from north to south and east to west that ducks will blow past dry areas. They need food and water, which means waterfowl hunters may have birds in their area sooner than in past years. It's also probable that hunters that hale from locations where drought hasn't been an issue and food and water are prevalent could be in for an incredible season.