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Washington's New Lottery Draw For Harlequins

Chasing “Blue Ducks” in the Evergreen State is Open Again, But You'll Need to be Lucky

Washington's New Lottery Draw For Harlequins

(Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson)

It was in ’06 when my wife, Julie, and I joined the late Steve Sutton, a consummate waterfowler if there ever was one, on the waters of northern Washington’s Birch Bay. We, along with Sutton’s black dog, Mike, had come to the salt in search of The Clown. The Blue Duck. Or, as he’s best known, the harlequin.

hunter holding a harlequin duck
(Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson)

When I moved to southwest Washington in ’93, the harlequin limit was seven-per-day. Over the next 31 years, the harlequin limit changed radically, with a timeline looking like:

1998 – The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) lowered the daily bag limit on harlequins to one. Also, in ‘98, the Sea Duck Joint Venture (seaduckjv.org), a cooperative between U.S. and Canadian waterfowl professionals, was formed, and conversations were initiated regarding sea ducks, sea duck populations, and those who considered themselves sea duck hunters.

2004 – The WDFW institutes a one-per-season harlequin limit, along with a mandatory harvest report card.

2013 – The WDFW develops a Sea Duck Harvest Management Strategy that outlines thresholds and guidance on restricted bag-limit considerations for scoters, goldeneyes, long-tailed ducks, and harlequins for future management decisions.

2022 – In response to increased hunting pressure, harvest exceeding acceptable thresholds for three years running, and concerns over population impacts, the WDFW closes harvest of harlequins entirely.

2024 – The WDFW initiates a new limited entry system, wherein hunters may apply for one of 38 harlequin permits.

“The closure happened not because of the (harlequin) population status,” said Kyle Spragens, WDFW’s waterfowl program lead. “That is, the population status isn’t what triggered us to start thinking ‘we have to do something different.’ What triggered us to do something different is since 2004 we’ve had a restriction in place that gave sea duck hunters who wished to pursue harlequins the opportunity to do so, but with a one-bird-per-season limit. But we had crossed a harvest threshold,” he continued, “that told us we had to do something more restrictive than that. So, what is more restrictive than a one-per-season limit?”

harlequin duck decoys
(Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson)

As Spragens explained, “One of the 'tools' I did not have at my disposal was the ability to limit the number of people who could pursue harlequin ducks. My decision then was, keep the (harlequin) limit at one-per-season, knowing we’re going to surpass the harvest threshold, thus potentially compounding a biological problem, and it will start having a biological affect. Or you shut (harvest) down and argue that you need another mechanism. That’s where we were at. The fork in the road was two options, and really it was a black-or-white option, and I needed a third one in the middle. But I didn’t have a third option. Maintain the status quo and drive (the population) into the ground, or shut it all down and build a third option.”

And that, after being completely closed for the 2022 and 2023 season, is what Spragens and the WDFW did. New for the 2024-25 waterfowl season, Washington will offer 38 harlequin permits to hunters who wish to hunt the little blue ducks. This will be a lottery style “luck of the draw” application process, with a drawing projected for August. Harlequin hopefuls must first purchase their small game hunting license, migratory bird permit (state duck stamp), and the migratory bird authorization required to hunt sea ducks, among other waterfowl, before applying for one of the 38 tags. There is no fee associated with the application or, if awarded, the tag itself, aside from the mandatory and aforementioned paperwork. Residents and non-residents both may apply for the permits.

drake harlequin duck
(Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson)

Thirty-eight? Where did that number come from? “For the past 28 years,” Spragens said, “we’ve been conducting aerial surveys of waterfowl populations. Four thousand miles of transects conducted every winter. We get a count of how many total harlequin ducks we believe are out in Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and our side of the Strait of Georgia. We have a boat-based survey, which then allows us to get composition, meaning of that total of harlequin ducks – how many are adults, how many are young-of-the-year, how many drakes, and how many hens.”

It’s important to the story as a whole at this juncture to step away briefly from numbers and look, instead, at harlequins biologically to better understand the reasons behind the concern. “Harlequins have a very peculiar breeding strategy,” Spragens explained, “where they act like geese and form strong pair bonds. Thus, one of the problematic pieces is if you separate that pair, you’ve potentially impacted the upcoming breeding cycle. So, we needed to come up with something given a system where (hunters) hyper-focus on an adult male, and we do have literature that tells us adult males are the piece of the breeding pair that makes for higher (nesting) success potential, that would address this.”

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What Spragens and his staff did, then, was take the aerial and boat-based estimate of the breeding pairs of harlequins, and “infuse a piece or objective that said ‘if we’re below that long-term average since doing the aerial surveys, and we ratchet the harvest down to a three percent threshold (as opposed to the five percent harvest threshold based on all adults, not just breeding pairs). Then you factor in a potential ‘crippling loss,’ remembering that you’re trying to err on the side of the birds. You do the math, and you come up with 38 permits.” He continues by adding, “So this is reframing the process, with some checks and balances. If we get above that long-term average, it will switch to the five percent (threshold), and can potentially double the number of permits.”

For Washington waterfowl hunters, this process and the reason behind the process is, understandably, quite a bit to digest. But the harlequin issue isn’t limited north of the Columbia River. During their April ’24 meeting, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Wildlife Commissioners voted four yea / two nay to lower Oregon’s statewide harlequin daily bag limit from seven to one statewide.

“The commission’s concern that (the harlequin), as an Oregon Conservation Strategy Species…they felt that having the maximum (7-per-day) bag limit for that species wasn’t appropriate,” said Brandon Reishus, Spragen’s counterpart as the ODFW’s Migratory Game Bird Coordinator in Salem. “The bottom line of their concern, in addition to (the harlequin) being a Conservation Strategy Species, was that the maximum bag limit could lead to the potential for what could be viewed as excessive harvest.”

By definition, a Conservation Strategy Species is, here, part of Oregon’s Conservation Strategy, which Reishus said “was adopted about 20 years ago and serves as a blueprint for where (the state) focuses a lot of our resources and effort in habitat and species management. Within the plan,” he continued, “there are a host of species known as strategy species – birds, mammals, fish, the whole gamut – and it’s those species that we’ve identified, due to a variety of factors, that may warrant special attention. Perhaps they’re less abundant or have seen some range contraction over time. Harlequins are on that list, with a host of other birds.”

hunter holding a harlequin duck decoy
(Photo courtesy of Julie Johnson)

During the April commission meeting, the topic was broached that the new one-per-day bag limit, when listed in the 2024-25 waterfowl pamphlet, may potentially focus a spotlight on harlequins as ‘fowlers, again potentially, scramble to harvest their blue duck before the opportunity, at least in the Lower 48, fades into obscurity. “We did state in the commission meeting that we speculate (the one-per-day harlequin limit) could increase attention,” Reishus suggested. “We stand by the statements we made to the commission that for the most part, much of the wintering habitat and range of harlequins in Oregon is either off-limits to hunting or essentially un-huntable, so we know our wintering birds still have that default refuge. It’s a speculation, like we said,” he continued, “but calling them out in the regulations may have the potential to increase awareness that (harlequins) may or may not be available in Oregon. It’s speculation, but there may be hunters, since harlequins aren’t mentioned in the regulations, that don’t think they can ever get one in Oregon. And as soon as they’re mentioned in the regulations…well, that means that you can get one.”

Sadly, this seems an almost “damned if you do and damned it you don’t” type of situation, with a little blue duck sitting smack-dab in the center of what many see as a controversial topic rather than one of conservation. Time, to use the cliché, will tell.




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