By Jace Bauserman
In most duck camps, a pair of birds get all the love, and for good reason. They’re gorgeous! Few sights in the waterfowl woods compare to an orange-feet-down greenhead hovering over a spread of well-placed fakes or the long sprig of a whistling pintail. Both species are cherished by the duck hunter.
The problem is, while mallard populations continue to thrive, the northern pintail has fallen on hard times. It’s these hard times that have forced the USFWS, as well as state game and fish agencies, to reduce the bag limit on pintails in most areas, and according to DU’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Tom Moorman, those bag limits aren’t likely to broaden much in the coming years.
“The pintail is the most unique of all puddle ducks,” said Moorman. “The pintail is circumpolar, meaning they will breed all across the northern hemisphere. In North America, the ducks breed from northern Alaska to James Bay. We get a few arctic breeders as well, but the core of the breeding population that supports the bulk of the harvest comes from the prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana and the Dakotas. This is the engine of the pintail production area of North America.”
How Did That Engine Break?
Pintails live long lives, and if they don’t pull off a successful nest, they will often not re-nest. A mallard or a blue-winged teal will re-nest, multiple times if needed. Pintails won’t. Because pintails have a long lifespan, they put all of their eggs into pulling off an annual clutch.
“If something happens to that nest,” Moorman noted, “they often won't re-nest. That clutch is just lost for the year.”
As agriculture production has increased in the prairie region, more and more pintail nests are lost each year, which presents a serious challenge to waterfowl managers when it comes to harvest numbers.
“Since the last glaciation, pintails have adapted a preference for short and mid-grass prairie,” Moorman added. “Much of that land over the years has been converted to agricultural land, which presents a serious problem for the pintail.”
Wheat is a big cash-crop in the prairie region, and when nesting pintails arrive in April, that stubble very much resembles short prairie grass. Birds nest in these fields, and just about the time of incubation, the producer comes along and plants his spring crop.
“This production destroys a lot of pintail nests, and sadly, we see mature hens take a hit as well,” Moorman said. “This gives us a two-fold issue.”
So, why wasn’t this pintail nesting problem a big deal in the past when numbers hoovered around the eight-million mark?
Into the early 1990’s, especially in Canada, farmers used a procedure called summer fallow. Farmers would harvest their wheat in September or October, and then leave their field fallow through the following summer. This allowed pintails to use the harvested fields to pull off a successful nest. This method has gone by the wayside.
In addition to the lack of summer fallow, farmers are expanding their agricultural boundaries, which means a tremendous loss of additional prairie nesting habitat.
“Farmers have changed their practices,” said Moorman. “We see a steady, annual intensive cropping. They harvest in October and start tilling and/or planting in the spring. A lot of the farming is no-till, but that doesn’t really help the pintail. We are talking about millions of acres of summer-fallow land that was once ideal for pintail nesting. Now that land is being aggressively farmed, and the ducks can’t pull off a successful hatch. They are in an ecological trap. They show up in mid-April, key in on the stubble and the nest gets destroyed. This means the pintail’s glacial adaptation is now working against them.”
What’s Being Done
DU and its many conservation partners are on the case. The struggle comes when trying to save land that is making money for agricultural producers.
“It’s a hard situation,” Moorman said. “One thing we are really focused on is working with the agricultural producers in the area. The one method we know will work, if we can get producers to adapt the process, is switching to winter wheat.”
Most wheat in Canada is spring-seeded and harvested in the fall. Producers that adopt a winter-wheat program plant wheat in the fall, hope for a moist winter, and then when the pintails arrive in spring, they have a few inches of green-growing wheat that won’t be harvested until mid-summer.
However, there are challenges with winter wheat. Currently, conservation groups are seeing about one- to two-million acres of winter wheat in the Canadian provinces, which is great, but when compared to the vast acreage is really a drop in the bucket.
“DU, along with the University of Saskatchewan, have worked to develop strains of winter wheat that are better adapted to the climate and conditions in prairie Canada,” said Moorman. “The issue becomes getting land owners to use these strains and giving them a strain that will provide them a bottom-line income equivalent to what their used to making. You run into different yields as well as different diseases and the like.”
Of course, Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl and others continue to boost pintail and other puddle duck nesting habitat through conservation easements and the like. Another method that’s being employed is keeping cattle on nesting grounds.
Ducks and cattle do quite well together, particularly when cattle producers partner with conservation groups to focus on grazing techniques. This is especially important for the pintail. Pintails don’t need much grass to pull off a clutch. They need a few clumps here and there. Cattle keep the native grasses grazed down, which makes the landscape more appealing to looking-to-nest pintails.
“We work with the ranchers, the farmers and stay focused on protecting the best-of-the-best native habitat to help this amazing species of duck pull off a successful nest. We really have to focus on harvest management and continue to hope a new technique of farming comes along. It’s not an all-is-lost story by any stretch, but I sure don’t foresee bag limits being increased in the foreseeable future.”