After years of stops and starts, waterfowl conservationists are finally getting their wish: The price of a Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp will go up by $10, likely in time for next season.
A bill sponsored by Representative John Fleming (R-LA) passed the House in November with broad bi-partisan support. A companion bill, The Federal Duck Stamp Act of 2014 (S. 2621), was sponsored by Senator David Vitter (R-LA). It passed the Senate, also with strong support on both sides of the aisle, in December.
The price increase was welcome news to duck hunters and wetlands conservationists who have been pleading with Congress to raise the price of a duck stamp for at least a decade. The cost of a postage stamp increased 14 times during the same period, but the infamously slow political process, along with reluctance over raising a perceived tax, hampered congressional efforts to approve a fee hike. Americans for Prosperity ripped the Federal Duck Stamp Act of 2014, calling it a tax increase on duck hunters.
"Duck stamp revenue fits the bill of Washington ineptitude — the user fee on hunters is used to give more land to the federal government, which already owns over a quarter of all the land in the country and cannot manage it properly," the group wrote in a blog post in November.
AFP clearly didn't do its homework. Support for the stamp increase has been widespread throughout the duck hunting and conservation community. Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl pushed for the increase. So did dozens of other pro-hunting conservation groups.
The money generated from the sale of duck stamps, which are required for all migratory waterfowl hunters over 16, goes directly to easement acquisition or the outright purchase of high-quality wetlands habitat, not into the federal government's general fund. Land includes waterfowl production areas in the Prairie Pothole Region, along with national wildlife refuges, many of which are open to hunting.
More than $800 million has been generated from the sale of the stamps since they were first required in 1934 and more than 6 million acres of wetlands have been protected. The program also has one of the highest returns-on-investment of any federal program. Ninety-eight cents of every dollar generated goes directly to land acquisition or on-the-ground efforts.
Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership director of government relations Steve Kline said the additional $10 will go only to easement acquisition, a stipulation that was written in the bill. That's not necessarily a bad thing, he noted.
"We can actually do more with easements, in part because the cost of land has gotten so high in recent years," he said. "Dedicating the increased revenue to easements also frees up the rest of the money generated from duck stamps for land purchases, so it's a win-win."
Land prices in some parts of the Prairie Pothole Region, known as the "Duck Factory," have tripled in the last decade, thanks largely to soaring commodity prices. Farmers are plowing under native grassland and opting out of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), both of which provide critical nesting and brood-rearing habitat for waterfowl, so they can plant more crops. According to a report by the Wildlife Management Institute, an acre of duck habitat in the PPR purchased with stamp revenue cost about $306 in 1991. The same land was selling for over $1,000 in 2010.
"That's one reason why the stamp increase was so important right now. We are losing high-quality nesting habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region and land prices may continue to increase," adds Kline.
Although it isn't known when President Barack Obama will sign the legislation into law, Kline and other conservation group representatives have no doubt he will sign it.
It looks like the 2014-15 season is coming up aces for Atlantic Flyway waterfowlers.
'Weather during the season is always what dictates success, but all the indicators suggest this should be a very good year for duck and goose hunters in the Atlantic Flyway, ' said Pennsylvania's Jacobs.
That's good news, because, after last season, East Coast waterfowlers need a hug. They had a tough go of it, most likely because much of the flyway was in a deep freeze for the best part of the season. Heck, it was one of the coldest winters in the past century, making open water scarce.
Except for a slight uptick in the mallard take last year, hunters put fewer birds in the freezer from all the important flyway species than they did the previous season. The wood duck harvest was off by 120,000 birds — a decline of 25 percent. Hunters also took home fewer honkers, snow geese, teal (of all three varieties), ring-necked ducks, scaup and buffleheads.
The good news for 2014 starts with habitat conditions on the flyway's important breeding grounds across eastern Canada and the northeast states. Only once in the past decade (2011) has there been more Atlantic breeding habitat rated as excellent. And the habitat that wasn't rated as excellent is primarily either good or fair. Only a tiny sliver of country in western Ontario was deemed to be poor for waterfowl breeding.
'We had good water, good brood cover, ' said Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for Maryland DNR. 'It was a little cooler than normal during the nesting season, but overall conditions were very good. '
What that all means is conditions were prime for ducks and geese to produce ducklings and goslings. And anytime there's a sizable number of young birds in the fall flight, the hunting can be spectacular.
Sure, drought, ice, hurricanes and other nasty weather in your specific hunting locale during the season can hang you out to dry, but that's all in the hands of a higher power. We're here to talk about what could be. And what could be in the Atlantic Flyway is hunters burning through tons of shells.
Heading into this year's breeding season, total duck numbers were estimated at 1.34 million, which is similar to last year's count and the LTA, from 1993-2013. Mallard numbers in the survey area covering parts of eastern Canada and some northeast states, were up a bit: 634,600 from 604,200 in 2013. Black duck numbers were similar to last year's count.
Green-winged teal were down a touch, but similar to their LTA. Same goes for ringnecks. Wood duck counts throughout the flyway seemed to be strong, according to Hindman. That's good news, because woodies typically are the most abundant duck in the Atlantic Flyway hunter's bag each season. It's usually between 400,000 and 500,000, although last year the take was estimated at 326,000.
'For wood ducks there seemed to be a lot of broods this spring, ' Hindman said. 'We're seeing more wood duck broods than normal in Maryland. '
'All indications are that the wood duck population in the Atlantic Flyway continues to do very well, ' he said.
As good as things are looking for duck hunters, they're even rosier for goose hunters. Believe it or not, spring actually came a bit early to Quebec's Ungava Peninsula, which is the primary nesting area for Atlantic Population Canada geese. That's the flyway's primary population of migratory honkers. Biologists counted 184,000 breeding pairs this spring.
More importantly, when they flushed the birds, 63 percent took off as single geese. According to Jacobs, biologists know from years of experience that when they move in to flush breeding pairs and only one goose takes off, it's usually a male, meaning there's a female sitting on a nest nearby. Hindman said the 63 percent single-goose flush rate is the highest the flyway has ever seen.
'What that tells us is there was a very strong breeding effort this year for Atlantic Population Canadas, ' Hindman said.
And that usually translates into lots of goslings.
'We're expecting a strong flight of AP Canadas this fall, with lots of juveniles in the flocks, ' Jacobs said.
The North Atlantic Population Canadas, which mainly stick to far eastern Canada and coastal New England, also had a good nesting season. The Southern James Bay Population, however, didn't do so well on the nest for the second year in a row. Those geese clip the western edge of the Atlantic Flyway.
Spring came early to Southampton and Bylot Islands in the Arctic Ocean, and biologists observed a hearty breeding effort by greater snow geese, which stick to the Atlantic Flyway. About 14 percent fewer adult snows showed up on the breeding grounds this year, as compared to last year, but breeding conditions were deemed to be 'excellent ' by waterfowl managers. A solid fall flight of greater snows is expected this season, with lots of juveniles.
Mallards down a bit and black ducks up slightly, but both had excellent nesting efforts. Wood ducks up and still higher than the LTA. Atlantic Population Canada geese showed record-high nesting, and large flight, with lots of young birds expected. Greater snow geese breeding population down, but production excellent. Large fall flight expected.
For ducks, 60 days between Sept. 27 and Jan. 25, 2015. Six
ducks total, with no more than 4 mallards (2 hens), 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 hooded mergansers, 2 pintails, 2 scaup, 1 canvasback, 1 black duck, 1 mottled duck, 1 fulvous whistling duck and 4 scoters. Limit on mergansers is 5, only two can be hooded. For light geese, 107 days between Oct. 1 and March 10, 2015, as set by each individual state. Daily bag limit of 25. Canada goose season length varies. Daily bag limit of 5 in zones established for resident populations of Canada geese. In hunt zones established for migratory populations, daily bag limit of 5 or fewer to vary among states. Atlantic brant season length can be 30 days. Daily bag limit of 2.
Daily canvasback limit decreased from two to one bird.
Water. In a word, that's what's great about the Central Flyway this year. There was lots of water through the nesting and rearing seasons, and that was super news for ducks and geese. If the water holds, that will be great for hunters this fall.
'Right now, we look really good for huntable water, ' Murano said in late July.
The Central Flyway, of course, harbors the prairie pothole country that's so important for ducks across the continent — especially pintails, blue-winged teal, shovelers and gadwalls. During the breeding habitat survey period last spring, waterfowl managers rated a critical sliver of prairie pothole country in eastern North and South Dakota as being in poor condition. That appeared to be a negative for duck production in the region. Within two weeks, though, the rain started falling, and it kept on falling.
'We've had 15 inches of rain in my rain gauge since mid-May, ' Murano said in late July. 'That's unheard of. '
If the habitat survey had occurred just two weeks later, Murano said the eastern Dakotas would have been deemed to be in excellent shape.
'There was lots of water for late and re-nesting ducks, ' he said. 'That was really good for those birds. '
As the survey stands, total duck numbers in the eastern Dakotas were down 19 percent from 2013. But that likely means the missing ducks simply flew on to find better breeding habitat, Murano said.
Montana and the western Dakotas, for instance, were rated highly, with a pond count 154 percent higher than 2013, and 74 percent above the LTA. As a result, the survey area saw its total duck numbers increase 129 percent from 2013.
Gadwalls were up 96 percent; northern shoveler numbers were up 206 percent; the pintail count was 185 percent higher this year than it was in 2013; and blue-winged teal were up 421 percent.
'Driving around, I'm seeing lots of blue-winged birds, ' Murano said.
So high are blue-winged teal numbers in the northern states within the Central, the USFWS is allowing a two-bird, bonus bag limit in Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and a portion of Montana. Hunters will be allowed to take eight ducks per day during the first 16 days of the season, but two of those eight must be blue-winged teal.
'Bonus blue-wings, ' Murano said. 'I know I'm going to be gunning for them. '
Normally, the daily bag is six ducks. Murano said those northern states that are so vital to blue-winged production aren't allowed to have early teal seasons, so bonus birds are a way for them to take advantage of the blue-wings they send south each year.
'Studies show the population can withstand additional harvest, so this will give us a chance to take a few, ' he said.
Prairie Canada's breeding habitat across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta all was in decent shape this year. A little bit was rated as 'fair ' and 'excellent, ' while most of it was deemed 'good. ' The total breeding duck count was up in all areas, ranging from increases of 5 to 39 percent.
'The Central Flyway's nesting habitat was in great shape this year, and the ducks did their part, ' said Kraai, of Texas. 'Nowhere in the flyway is suffering from prolonged drought. '
Even dry conditions in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas improved this year from last. But there still are some areas of concern, like central Texas. It's been dry there for three years running, and that's where coastal Texas rice growers draw their water, Kraai said. With low water reserves, many rice growers won't be able to draw water for their rice fields.
'We're down 60,000 to 100,000 acres of rice from four years ago, ' Kraai said. 'That's a lot of food and wetland habitat that won't be out there to attract migrating ducks and geese. '
The effect of that missing rice is easy to see. Last year, the Texas duck kill dipped to 1 million birds, down from 1.5 million in 2012. Hunters didn't even really put in the effort. It's as if they knew what they were up against. Their total days afield in Texas fell to 360,000 from 513,000 the previous season.
Still, Kraai chooses to remain optimistic. Conditions can change quickly. And this season could be a banner one for duck hunters.
'What we know is, there are going to be a lot of ducks flying south this fall, so that means we've got a chance for a good season, ' he said. 'It all starts with the ducks. '
For geese, this season is shaping up to be a banner one in the Central. Mid-continent Population lesser snows had a good nesting season, and an above-average fall flight is expected. Same goes for Ross's geese. And the various subspecies of Arctic nesting Canada geese that wing through the flyway all had banner breeding seasons, so solid flights are forecast for this fall.
Pintails, shovelers and blue-winged teal are all up. Canvasbacks are down. Numbers up for Arctic-nesting Canada geese. Snow geese at record highs, and production of goslings was excellent.
For ducks, 74 days (97 days in the High Plains Mallard Unit) between Sept. 27 and Jan. 25, 2015, as set by each individual state. Bag limit of 6 ducks total, with up to 5 mallards (2 hens), 3 wood ducks, 3 scaup, 2 redheads, 2 pintails, 1 canvasback and 1 mottled duck. Mottled duck season in Texas closed first five days of the season. For Canada geese in the East Tier, 107-day season between Sept. 27 and Feb. 15, 2015, with a daily bag limit of 8. East Tier states can set a 74-day season on white-fronted geese with a 2-bird daily limit, or an 88-day season with a 1-bird limit. In the West Tier, states can select 107-day season for dark geese, with a daily bag limit of 5. For light geese, 107 days between Sept. 27 and March 10, 2015, with a daily bag limit of 50.
Daily limit on canvasbacks decreased from two birds to one; 2 bonus blue-winged teal allowed for the first 16 days in Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.
There is no bigger flyway in the U.S. than the Mississippi. It's where most of the waterfowling magic happens each fall. For instance, hunters shot 1.8 million mallards here last season. That's more greenheads bagged than the other three flyways combined.
So when waterfowl managers gush about record-high duck numbers, nobody drools more than these folks.
'Duck populations are higher than they've ever been, and we've got the potential for a great season, ' said Louisiana's Reynolds.
The number of breeding mallards was up in all the survey areas important to the flyway, except for a dip in the area stretching across northern Saskatchewan, northern Manitoba and western Ontario.
Gadwalls are the second-most important duck in the Mississippi, and they had a super nesting season as well. The number of breeding gaddies that showed up on the nesting grounds this spring was through the roof. Same goes for the three brands of teal.
'What more can you say than the continental breeding duck numbers are as high as they've been in 59 years, ' said Van Horn.
Reynolds said were it not for a potential problem he sees looming, he'd be downright giddy.
'The population has stayed very high, while the habitat is getting creamed, ' he said.
Losses of wetland habitat across the Prairie Pothole Region due to oil development and the conversion of federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands back into agriculture have been increasing, along with the timbering of the boreal forests in Canada.
'There's been an unmistakable loss of habitat, but duck numbers are still at an all-time high, ' Reynolds said. 'Why? Because we're wet as hell. There's enough water in Canada that has compensated for the loss of breeding habitat. 'But when we dry out, we are in position to see a big population decline. '
But for now, it's time to enjoy the good days while they're here. Hunters in Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan have a new season this fall. USFWS authorized a short, early teal season for these states (Minnesota was included, but opted out), which historically were not allowed to have one, because they are waterfowl production states.
'Teal numbers are so high right now, the USFWS decided to experiment with an early season for us, ' Van Horn said. 'It's a three-year experiment, so we'll see how it goes. '
Indeed, teal numbers are high. Across all survey areas, the breeding populations of blue- and green-wing teal were up again this year. The blue-wings are 75 percent above the LTA, while green-wings are 69 percent above the average.
'There's a ton of teal out there, ' Van Horn said.
Van Horn said Wisconsin was looking at holding theirs Sept. 1-7. He stressed it will be hunters who determine if the season continues or dies.
'They're going to have to be on their game with duck identification, ' Van Horn said. 'We'll be watching them from spy blinds, and if we see them shooting at anything other than teal, we have to report that. If there's too much of that, we'll fail the test and lose the season. '
White-front enthusiasts had a good 2013. They shot 122,400 specklebellies, which was up from 83,000 the previous year.
Speck hunters should be fired up this year too. Nesting conditions for the Mid-continent Population across the high Arctic were excellent, with spring coming early, allowing white-fronts to start laying eggs early. That's a positive change from the previous two years. Better -than-average production of these white-fronts is expected this year, and a bigger flight is predicted as compared to the past two years.
Light goose hunters had better stockpile shotgun shells for their season. The flocks of Ross's geese and the Mid-continent Population of lesser snows both had stellar springs. Huge fall flights with lots of young birds are projected.
Both light geese had good nesting seasons last year, too, and hunters took advantage. Their take of snow, blue and Ross's geese combined climbed by more than 25,000 birds from 2012 to 2013.
'There's no shortage of snows out there, ' Reynolds said.
As for honkers, Mississippi Flyway hunters had a banner season last year. They boosted their take on Canadas by about 110,000 geese over 2012. The main flock of honkers important to the flyway is the Mississippi Flyway Giant Population. Biologists counted 1.4 million of these big geese this past spring, which was down a bit from 2013, but it's still a big number. Nesting conditions varied greatly across their breeding habitat, and the USFWS predicts hunters won't notice a difference in their abundance this season.
The main migratory flock is the Mississippi Valley Population, which nests in northern Ontario. The breeding effort of these geese was average to below-average due to lingering snow and cold temperatures, and a subpar fall flight is expected.
Mallards, green-winged teal and blue-winged numbers all up. Canvasbacks are down. Large flight of snow geese expected, with many juveniles. Numbers for giant Canada geese remain high.
For ducks, 60 days between Sept. 27 and Jan. 25, 2015, as set by each individual state. Bag limit of 6 ducks daily, with up to 4 mallards (2 hens), 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 pintails, 3 scaup, 1 canvasback, 1 black duck and 1 mottled duck. Daily bag for mergansers is 5, only two of which can be hooded. For Canada geese, seasons generally between Sept. 27 and Jan. 31, 2015, with season lengths set by each state. Limit varies from 1 to 3 daily. For light geese, 107 days between Sept. 27 and March 10, 2015, with daily bag limit of 20. For white-fronted geese, season not to exceed 74 days with a 2-bird limit or 88 days with a 1-bird limit between Sept. 27 and Feb. 15, 2015.
Daily limit on canvasbacks decreased from two birds to one; early teal hunting offered to Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, but it's up to the states to decide if they want it.
In the western-most flyway, it's looking like a case of the haves versus the have-nots. If you have water come hunting season, you should be covered with ducks and geese, according to California's Skalos. Unfortunately, it was looking in late summer like many waterfowlers won't have water this fall.
California's Central Valley was in the midst of the worst drought it's seen in a generation. Lake Mead outside Las Vegas — the largest reservoir in the U.S. — was down more than 130 feet, and lower than it's been since the 1930s this summer. The fall migration hadn't even started yet, and ducks and geese were turning up dead in Oregon and California. Waterfowl managers like Skalos are concerned about disease outbreaks once the millions of migratory ducks and geese show up on their Pacific Flyway wintering grounds, since many flocks are likely to be heavily concentrated in the few pockets of water out there.
Meanwhile, farther west in the flyway, the high desert country of Great Salt Lake was far wetter than normal. Through the end of June, rain gauges in SLC had collected more than 3 inches of rain above the area's year-to-date average.
'Most places probably aren't going to have water, and so they aren't going to have any ducks, ' Skalos said. 'But if you've got water, you're probably going to do really well in the Pacific Flyway this season. '
California is king in the Pacific Flyway. Last year alone, duck hunters there spent 403,200 days afield. That's more than three times the number of days they hunted in Washington, which ranked second.
Skalos was particularly worried this summer about reduced hunting opportunity in California because of the drought. There, public refuges offer a lot of hunting to a lot of people. With water restrictions expected, Skalos feared refuge managers will not have as much water to work with this fall, and might therefore have to cut back on the number of hunters allowed in.
'If things stay the way they are, we're almost certain to have to cut back hunting allocations, ' he said. 'That's not good foe hunters. '
While water is a big concern in the Pacific Flyway, ducks aren't. The migrants that move through are at record-high populations. Nearly all of the flyway's important ducks are above their LTAs. That's mallards, wigeon, green-wing teal and shovelers. Pintails are down, but there are still a fair number of them out there.
'The big picture is, we should have record flights of ducks this fall, ' said Brandon Reishaus, migratory gamebird coordinator for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. 'The farther south in the flyway you go, the worse the water situation gets. Up north, it's not quite as severe. '
In an effort to simplify goose-hunting seasons within the Pacific Flyway, the USFWS eliminated the separate seasons for interior vs. coastal states. Previously, separate seasons and bag limits were set for coastal states — Washington, Oregon, California — interior states, such as Idaho and Utah. This year, they all get 107 days to hunt Canadas, specks and snows, and the daily bag limits are uniform: 20 light geese, 10 specks and four Canadas.
Canadas rule the fields. And there are several populations of honkers that migrate through. Just about all of them had banner nesting seasons.
The Pacific Population that winters from the Pacific Northwest south into California was expected to produce more goslings than normal, and so a solid flight is predicted. Above-average production was expected, and an above-average flight is forecast, for both the Dusky and Cackling Canadas, which are important to the Lower Columbia River Valleys of Oregon and Washington. Rocky Mountain Population Canadas found better conditions on their nesting grounds this year as compared to last, and an average fall flight is predicted.
'I think we're looking pretty good for our Canada goose hunting, ' Reishaus said.
Pacific Population white-fronted geese are particularly important to California, Oregon and Idaho hunters.
They found good conditions on their nesting grounds on the Yuko-Kuskokwim Delta of Alaska. Above-average gosling production was expected from these geese, and a better flight than last year is predicted. Also, the daily bag limit on specks this year was boosted from six to 10.
Most of the snow geese in the Pacific Flyway hail from nesting colonies in the western and central Arctic and Wrangel Island in Russia. These flocks mingle together during winter surveys, and so it's hard for biologists to differentiate between them. The current estimate of the combined flocks is 1.4 million, which is 53 percent higher than the previous year's count. But unlike other white geese, these flocks did not encounter good nesting conditions this spring. As a result, below-average production is expected this year, with very few juveniles in the flight this fall.
'There's a high number of snows in the flyway, but hunters might find them tough to work this season, since we're not expecting a lot of juvenile birds, ' Reishaus said.
Drought conditions will affect hunting. Blue-winged teal and mallards are up. Pintails are down. Numbers up for all Canadas, and a large flight is expected. Solid production of white-fronts and lots of juvies expected in the migration.
For ducks, 107 days between Sept. 27 and Jan. 25, 2015, as set by each individual state. Seven ducks total, with no more than 3 scaup, 2 hen mallards, 2 redheads, 2 pintails and 1 canvasback. For scaup, the season
length is 86 days. For Canada geese, 107-day season between Sept. 27 and Jan. 25, 2015, bag limit 4; For white-fronts and light geese, 107 days between Sept. 27 and March 10, 2015, bag limit of 10 for white-fronts and 20 for light geese. Light geese in the interior states: 107 days between Sept. 24 and March 10, 2014, bag limit 20. Brant, 16 days in Oregon and Washington, and 30 days in California, 2-bird daily limit.
Goose seasons and bag limits made uniform flyway-wide; daily limit on white-fronted geese increased from 6 to 10; canvasback limit decreased from 2 birds to 1; brant limit reduced from 3 birds to 2.