November 01, 2023
Once upon a time, killing mallards was almost the worst part of duck hunting. Things got worse if you shot a double, and they were horrible if you shucked your pump and hammered a triple. Normally that kind of shooting would be cause for a fist bump. But if you ran into a game warden you better have only had three greenheads. If you had one hen and even one drake — let alone two — then you’d get writers cramp from filling out a bunch of paperwork.
The Point System was a duck harvest management strategy that ran from the latter Go Go ‘60s until it landed in the 1988 scrap heap. The goal of the new, innovative conservation platform was to allow hunters to shoot lots of ducks while accomplishing two things; first, to make sure there were enough breeding pairs for the following year and second, that struggling populations were protected. It was a brilliant strategy with problems in application. That’s why some older waterfowlers remember the Point System fondly, while others not so much.
Necessity Is The Mother of Invention
The idea for the Point System originated with a Minnesota sportsman named John Rose. Rose also was the Vice President of the Minnesota Conservation Federation, and believed that it was important for to harvest ducks that had stable populations while letting those with lower numbers fly by. As Rose lived in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, the law originally was known as the Robbinsdale System, but that’s sort of a mouthful. Ultimately the name was simplified and called what it was: the Point System. Fun Fact: While the idea came out of Rose’s home state of Minnesota it was never implemented into law.
The Net Net
Don’t tell me about the labor pains, just show me the baby, so here’s how it worked. Based on the estimated May breeding ground population surveys that determined the health of each species, male and female ducks were given a value in points. Hunters could shoot ducks until they reached the 100 point threshold after which they’d have to stop. Anyone going over the daily 100 point bag limit and they’d be in violation of shooting over the limit. Every year, conservationists would assess waterfowl numbers. Population increases reduced the point value on a duck while decreases raised them sky high. Here are some examples of a duck’s point valuation from back in the day:
- Canvasback: 100 points
- Hen Black duck, Redhead, Wood duck, Hooded merganser: 70 points each
- Mallard drake: 25 points
- Widgeon, Teal, Pintail, Northern shoveler, Scaup, Ring-necked duck: 10 points each
Do The Math
Waterfowl identification was critical to being legal in the Point System, and hunters need to correctly ID flying birds before squeezing the trigger. Examples of a daily bag limit might include:
- Four greenheads: 100 total points. That’s an ok day.
- One greenhead, one hen Black duck: 95 total points. That’s a lot of work for two ducks.
- Ten Pintail: 100 total points. That’s a pretty good day.
- One Wood duck, three sprig: 100 total points. That’s also an ok day.
- One can: 100 total points. That’s a lot of work for one duck.
One hen Black duck and one woodies; you’ve over the limit with 140 points.
One can and one duck of any other species: you’re over the limit, and it just depends by how much.
There was a lot of change during the Point System era. When launched, one Pintail was worth 10 points. About ten years later the pintail was worth 25 points. By the end of the Point System’s use, pintail populations had declined enough to increase its value to 70 points. That’s a big difference. Drake mallards ranged between 25 and 35 points while hen mallards fluctuated between 70 and 90 points. In general, females of any species were valued higher as they were more important for sustaining duck populations through polygamous breeding and rearing.”
What’s The Point?
John Devney, Delta Waterfowl’s Vice President of U.S. Policy, says understanding the context of the point system is important.
“The Point System was an innovative approach to Duck Harvest Strategy,” he said. “The Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 was the first step towards creating sustainable bird populations. The next important step in waterfowl conservation came in 1948 with the establishment of flyways. Establishing the Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways helped scientists research current waterfowl conditions and understand the issues specific to each region. That led to expanded flyway-specific research that was the beginning of data-driven decisions. In 1955, the May breeding grounds surveys began, and the wing and band recovery program was launched. The whole is the sum of the parts, and conservationists like John Rose had information to use for determining how to handle fluctuating waterfowl populations.”
That information was relied on during the waterfowl decline of the 1960s. Low populations of many ducks showed conservationists that something needed to be done to ensure the future of duck hunting.
“One of the Point System’s key goals was that it shifted around the harvest,” Devney said. “Rather than just close down hunting until recovery was achieved, the Point System served as a running change. With this new method, hunters in areas that had abundant numbers of low point ducks had phenomenal seasons. Conversely, regions with fewer, high point ducks, meant hunter harvests may have been historically low.”
Initial testing of the Point System began in the late ‘60s in the Central and Mississippi flyways. Once fully tested, any state was allowed to adopt the Point System in lieu of the conventional bag limit system. Under a normal bag limit, hunters could harvest on average between 4 and 6 ducks per day. States were likely to adopt the Point System if it would offer hunters better harvest rates.
We Don’t Need Your Stinking Point System
Not every state chose to use the Point System. In fact, no states in the Pacific Flyway gave it a try, and the majority of states along the Eastern seaboard left it alone. The Point System’s use was concentrated in the Central and Mississippi Flyways, partially because it was developed in Minnesota and field tested in those areas, too.
Over the years, Devney has heard tell of some practical problems with the Point System.
“First, hunters needed to identify ducks on the wing before they were shot,” he said. “As we all know, certain situations—such as correctly identifying a hen mallard from a Black duck at first light—can be a challenge. An incorrect ID could result in a big change in points, a situation that could push a hunter over his daily bag limit. Another issue came from determining who shot what. With two, three or more hunters in a blind there was an opportunity to reorder the points in the harvested game. That reordering would allow hunters to shoot more ducks and for the hunt to continue on for a longer period of time.
"My understanding is that while there many such reports it was a challenge for game wardens to enforce. Then there were stories of hunters over their limit leaving behind dead ducks in the marsh to avoid a potential fine. What made the Point System a viable conservation tool also caused it to fail. And since it was tough on hunters and law enforcement alike it was scraped in favor of our current Adaptive Harvest Management program.”
A lot of other changes in waterfowling occurred at the same time that the Point System was shuttered. The late 80’s was the beginning of the drought which reduced waterfowl populations. Then there was the initial implementation of nontoxic shot which, in 1991, became law. But the Point System scored a victory much bigger than a good day’s hunt, for it showed scientists and conservationists that habitat — not harvest — has the greatest impact of waterfowl populations. We’re all a work in progress, but lessons learned from initiatives like the Point System are part of what helps make our sport so great.