Driftwood Outdoors: Breeding duck decline could spell trouble for hunting

Monitoring duck numbers is key to maintaining healthy populations with proper management.
Monitoring duck numbers is key to maintaining healthy populations with proper management.

Delta Waterfowl is a nonprofit conservation organization focused on producing ducks and securing the future of waterfowl hunting.

They pursue these initiatives through intensive management programs and conservation of breeding duck habitat. Science is at the core of all Delta does, and each year they share findings with members and the public. This year, some of the science isn’t great.

Delta Waterfowl is headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota, right in the middle of North America’s prime waterfowl nesting region. Mike Szymanski is the migratory game bird supervisor for North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGFD). Delta works with NDGFD and many more agencies to collect data and implement action.

“By and large, all species were flat to down,” said Szymanski. “Mallards, for instance, were down about 19%, pintails were down about 29% and blue-winged teal down roughly 13%. These species being down from last year is one thing, but when you compare it back to what we consider to be one of our best periods for breeding ducks in North Dakota (1994 to 2016), we’re down a lot more than that. So overall, mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, gadwalls, wigeon and northern shovelers are down anywhere from 24% to 49% from that 1994 to 2016 time period.”

Waterfowl numbers fluctuate. Understanding why is complicated. What you don’t want to do is ask four duck hunters what’s going on with the population. You’ll likely get four different answers, with each likely being partially true and partially false. The scientists at organizations like Delta Waterfowl, and at state and federal agencies, have facts behind the information they publish.

“Coming out of winter, we were certainly quite dry after having a mostly open winter across the state, but it rained a fair bit in the 30 days leading up to our survey, so that kept it from being really dry,” Szymanski said. “At the time of our survey, wetland conditions were considered ‘fair.’ We had a lot of new water on the landscape during the survey that really wasn’t there when ducks were moving through. We’re coming out of several years of lower duck production because of drought across a wide swath of the prairie pothole region. It takes time to build the breeding population up again.”

Rain isn’t something only farmers pray for. Duck hunters are known to perform rain dances regularly. Precipitation is critical to healthy waterfowl populations.

“If you don’t have good runoff and early spring rains, it doesn’t look great to the ducks. While the rains came too late to capture some of those early migrant flocks, the ducks that did settle in North Dakota will benefit from improved conditions. The water is great for re-nesting efforts and brood habitat,” Szymanski said.

We are not at a time to panic, by any means, but we’re also far from what numbers could look like when, 20 years ago, duck numbers were through the roof.

A positive future for waterfowl is reliant on input and support from many sources. Government agencies at both the state and federal level, and nonprofits like Delta Waterfowl, are critical. But no group is more important than private citizens who, by and large, determine the future of waterfowl by being engaged, supporting good scientific initiatives, and participating in sound conservation practices.

“Developing and implementing new tools to conserve prairie wetlands is so important,” Szymanski said. “Delta continues to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service to keep small wetlands on the landscape. Those small wetlands are the engine that drives duck production in North America.”

With continued effective management by our government, grassroots efforts from nonprofits, and a committed army of citizen conservationists, the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting looks strong. Recent dips in numbers should raise eyebrows and cause adjustments in management to make sure we have healthy habits and duck numbers moving forward.

See you down the trail.

For more Driftwood Outdoors, check out the podcast on www.driftwoodoutdoors.com or anywhere podcasts are streamed.

This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Driftwood Outdoors: Breeding duck decline could spell trouble for hunting