Like many other hunting events in the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has created another casualty in the outdoors world as news has come concerning the official cancellation of the 2020 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey.
An annual effort since 1955 on the North American Duck Factory’s prairie breeding grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S., the spring breeding population survey is a cooperative effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, and several state agencies.
“Decisions to cancel the May survey and other migratory bird monitoring this spring were based on our priority of protecting the health and safety of the American public, our partners and our employees,” said Chief of the USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management Ken Richkus in a news release.
Since regulations for this fall’s waterfowl hunting seasons — which are already in the approval process — are based on data collected from the 2019 survey, there will be no anticipated interruptions for waterfowl hunting seasons this fall.
Nor should this year’s data gap produce any ill effects on next year’s seasons either. As one prominent waterfowl biologist indicated to me in an e-mail, “I believe they know enough about the relatively minimal impacts of harvest to safely do that (make regulation proposals next year) in absence of one year of data, given they have records going back to the late 1950s.”
According to Delta Waterfowl, the USFWS is already at work to develop such a plan to establish season frameworks for the 2021-22 season based on such long-term population information.
“For the general duck seasons, the Service will use the long-term data and models to predict 2020 spring abundances of ducks and habitat conditions in place of the spring 2020 data, which cannot be collected,” states the Delta Waterfowl news release, which quotes a USFWS question-and-answer document about the unique situation unfolding.
“The results from these predictions will be combined with the existing harvest strategies to determine appropriate levels of harvest for the 2021-2022 season. This will ensure the sustainability of ducks and provide hunting opportunities for the American public.”
While the scrubbing of this spring’s aerial flyovers and ground based surveys in several Canadian provinces and U.S. states will not impact duck and goose seasons this year, there is still a sense of loss as the annual tradition carried on for 65 years falls victim to the pandemic.
“These surveys are the bedrock of effective harvest management in North America and have helped sustain waterfowl populations and abundant hunting opportunities for over 60 years,” said Karen Waldrop, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited.
“Although we will miss the anticipation and excitement that comes with the annual release of the May survey results, we don’t expect the cancellation of surveys to impact seasons and bag limits for the majority of species. The combination of healthy, robust waterfowl populations and our long-term experience with these data, gives us faith that the waterfowl management community can project populations with a high level of certainty.”
In addition to the waterfowl breeding population survey being canceled this spring, the response to the virus outbreak has produced some other cancellations that hunters will find noteworthy. That’s because U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials have also announced that they will be canceling the American Woodcock Singing-ground Survey, the Mid-continent Population Sandhill Crane Survey, and the Arctic Goose Banding Program.
In similar fashion, wildlife officials also note that the U.S. Geological Survey has canceled the North American Breeding Bird Survey, which brings in valuable data about bird abundance across the continent as well as helping authorities regulate the harvest of certain species.
While none of the above will cause any anticipated regulatory changes to this fall’s hunting seasons, it is possible that hunters could find fewer numbers of banded waterfowl flying down the flyways this fall. In addition to the Arctic goose banding program mentioned above, other summertime survey work and banding efforts for ducks and geese in North America’s high latitude regions could be in jeopardy if travel restrictions aren’t relaxed soon.