At first glance, Florida might seem like a duck hunter’s paradise. It’s just about impossible to drive anywhere in central and south Florida without running into a sprawling lake or swamp. There is water everywhere, much of it filled with aquatic vegetation that looks like a duck buffet.
At one time, Florida was indeed a top destination for duck hunters. These days? Hunters still kill plenty of ducks, but the birds don’t show up like they used to in places that held gobs of waterfowl in the past.
“They just aren’t using places like Big Cypress Swamp or Lake Okeechobee like they did in the 1980s and 90s,” says Travis Thompson, a fifth-generation Floridian and full-time waterfowl and fishing guide. “We still kill a lot of ringnecks and blue-wings in the stormwater treatment areas and we do good on the mottled and black-bellies, but there is no question migratory ducks just aren’t there in the numbers that they used to be. We have to work a lot harder now.”
Long-term weather trends are likely playing a role. Ducks don’t migrate as far south on average as they used to. However, a bird’s-eye view of the Everglades ecosystem offers another reason the duck hunting has suffered in recent decades.
Known as the River of Grass, the Everglades once covered about 4,000 square miles, stretching from near Orlando to Florida Bay at the southern tip of the state. The topography slopes southward at about two inches per mile, creating a slow, steady flow. Rain that falls around Orlando can take a year or more to reach Florida Bay. That is, if it ever makes it.
Thanks to a massive network of canal, levee and flood gate projects that started in the 1940s, much of the historic Everglades are dry—farmland and housing developments taking its place. Canals divert water straight to the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean and the levees interrupt the natural flow southward.
“The reason fewer ducks use the Everglades is simple. There is far less habitat now than there was 20, 30 or 40 years ago,” says Bill Cooksey, of the National Wildlife Federation’s Vanishing Paradise program. “What habitat remains has been severely degraded. Places that held good numbers of birds in the past don’t have much food for those birds anymore.”
The Red Tide
There is no better example than Lake Okeechobee, a shallow, 730-square mile basin of water and aquatic vegetation. As Thompson has seen first-hand, the impacts of Florida’s water engineering efforts have been dramatic and in almost every way, detrimental to waterfowl.
“Okeechobee used to be a great place to hunt ducks, but it doesn’t have the water it should. One canal takes water from the lake and sends it to the Gulf. Another one diverts water to the Atlantic Ocean. The water levels are way down and it has been hit with some pretty severe algae blooms in recent years. That algae ends up killing all the other aquatic vegetation that the ducks feed on,” says Thompson.
Those algae blooms are compounded by another factor: excessive nutrients. Fertilizer from suburban lawns and agriculture surround the Everglades, and end up in the water. In 2017 alone, an estimated 1,048 tons of phosphorous ended up in the Everglades. Those nutrients helped spur a catastrophic algae bloom in the Gulf. Known as “red tide,” it killed an estimated 267 tons of marine life.
It is a deeply complex issue, says Everglades Foundation senior ecologist Dr. Steve Davis, and one that has been mired in political wrangling since the first canal was proposed in the 1930s.
“Scientists warned us that the Everglades would be negatively altered if the plans to divert water were implemented. They were right,” says Davis.
Thanks to a variety of conservation organizations and vocal sportsmen like Thompson, the tide is shifting in favor of the Everglades and those who hunt and fish there. Federal, state and non-profit funds are starting to flow into restoration efforts, including a recent pledge of $2.5 billion by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. The state has already spent $1.5 billion in the last four years and the federal government pledged $2 billion in restoration funding in 2016.
Birds Bounce Back
What work has been started or completed is already showing positive results. The Kissimmee River restoration project, for instance, has backfilled much of the 30-foot-deep canal that carried water from Lake Kissimmee straight to Lake Okeechobee. The natural river channel is being restored and water now overflows the banks during wet periods as it did before the channelization.
“Prior to the Kissimmee River restoration project, duck use in the surrounding marshland was about one bird per four square kilometers. Afterwards, the average number of ducks went to 40 per square kilometer,” says Davis.
A number of other ambitious restoration projects, including the Central Everglades Project, are also underway. It aims to restore habitat to 10,000 acres of degraded wetlands just south of Okeechobee. Part of the project includes the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, a 240,000-acre-foot holding tank that will trap nutrients before the water flows south. It will be similar to a number of other stormwater treatment areas in the Everglades. And it will likely be a boon for ducks.
“STAs are some of our best places to hunt ducks,” says Thompson. “They are loaded with aquatic vegetation that filter out the nutrients before the water flows south.”
The CEP also includes replacing parts of the Tamiami Trail road bed with bridges to allow a more natural flow. The highway runs east and west between Miami and Tampa and is built on a levee, effectively preventing water from flowing south except at a few bridges.
Some of that work is complete or near completion and it is also showing positive results. Davis says a record number of wading birds—herons, egrets and ibises, for example—were observed nesting in the southern Everglades and the fishery in Florida Bay has “exploded,” too. Part of that was a result of a huge influx of fresh water from Hurricane Irma and an abnormally wet year overall.
“That showed us what we can expect if we can, to some extent, restore natural flows during normal years,” says Davis. “The response so far has been nothing but good.”
Despite the success stories, future restoration efforts will likely continue to be caught in a tug-of-war between conservationists and agricultural and development interests. A number of lawsuits have long delayed some reclamation projects. Davis says many restoration efforts currently underway were first conceived in the 1980s.
“It’s taken this long to work through all the studies and legal challenges and other things that have to be done before work can get started. That’s how slow these things can move,” says Davis.
The good news is that the pace has picked up in recent years, thanks in part to groups like the EF and the NWF lobbying on behalf of sportsmen and the rest of Florida’s citizens.
“I think people, including politicians, are beginning to realize that the cost of not doing anything is as high or even higher than the cost of these restoration efforts,” says Cooksey.
“The Everglades serves as the primary source of drinking water for millions of people. That water is going to have to come from somewhere, so cleaning up the Everglades is going to be cheaper in the long run. Besides, we were responsible for messing up the Everglades. We have an obligation to fix it.”
This Is Your Land
A massive public lands bill was signed in March. It includes permanent reauthorization of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF uses royalties from offshore drilling to fund conservation, urban and rural parks and public access. It is considered one of the most important access funding mechanisms in the country. Other measures in the bill protect 670 miles of river in seven states and designate 1.3 million acres of public land as wilderness.
Snows Feed the Hungry
A February conservation snow goose contest sponsored by Mack’s Prairie Wings raised $31,000 for charity. More than $10,000 went to Arkansas Hunters Feeding the Hungry, which used part of the proceeds to pay for processing the 1,160 geese killed over the two-day contest. The meat went to John 3:16 Ministries in Batesville, which will distribute it throughout the year. The remainder of the money, generated through contest entry fees, was split between Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited.
The discovery of giant salvinia in a southern Arkansas lake prompted the Game and Fish Commission to eradicate the weed. The aquatic plant is native to South America and has been a persistent problem in Louisiana, where it spreads rapidly and blocks sunlight from reaching the water. The AGFC is providing technical support to the foundation that owns Lake Erling to eradicate the plant.
John Dingell Passes
John Dingell, the longest serving member of the U.S. House and a staunch advocate for wetlands and wildlife conservation, passed away in February at the age of 92. Dingell served on the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission for 45 years and was a key figure in promoting the North Americans Wetlands Conservation Act. He also helped establish the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Dingell was the co-sponsor of the Dingell-Johnson Act, also known as the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act. It placed an excise tax on fishing and boating equipment to help fund conservation.