What is the future of duck hunting in Texas and beyond?
The answer to that question depends upon whom you ask and what aspect of the waterfowl issue they understand best. There is no one simple answer as to what the future holds for those of us who crave the experience of hunting ducks and geese and sharing a quiet morning on the water with a retriever.
In fact, there are so many issues at hand that it boggles the mind to consider all of the factors that go into making a fall flight. For this article, we have investigated these variables and broken them down into an easily readable format that paints an accurate picture of the problems we are facing right now and where they might take us in the not-so-distant future.
One of the biggest factors contributing to our lack of success in the last years has been rice production. Statewide production has dropped 62 percent over the last 30 years, but in Orange, Jefferson, Chambers, Liberty, Galveston and Brazoria Counties, it has dropped 73 percent and much of that been in the last 12 to 15 years.
You will often hear duck and goose reports referred to as “east of Houston” and “west of Houston”. That is because Houston is a real dividing line in terms of waterfowl habitat and we have had the worst end of the deal.
In 1990, there were 60,000 duck hunters in Texas and by the year 2000 there were 120,000. That has fallen by about 20,000, but it still puts great pressure on public lands in particular and moved ducks toward areas with little pressure such as the Panhandle and Hill Country.
“There is simply a lack of pressure in much of the state,” said guide Roger Bacon. “I take a group up to the Panhandle every year now and have learned no one hunts ducks up there. You cannot find steel shot west of Forth Worth, so if you go, bring your own shot because they’re not going to have it.”
“It just makes sense,” he added. “Where there is food, water and the least pressure, there are going to be ducks.”
There are much bigger problems, however, where ducks nest in the prairie pothole region.
For every one percent decline in native grasslands in the prairie pothole region of the U.S. and Canada, there will be 25,000 fewer ducks in the fall. Consider that the current loss rate is 2.5 percent per year, and you can see there are big problems for ducks and duck hunters to face right now.
That means 62,500 fewer ducks annually, and in 14 years that number totals 875,000. This does not factor in the annual fluctuation due to drought, predation and other factors. This is simply acreage lost to farm and development in that crucial region of North America, and it translates to ducks that nature can never produce.
Duck hunters on the Texas Coast faced very poor hunting from about 2002-2004. Although numerous factors affect our region during the fall migration, the fact is that things will only get worse if current trends continue in the prairie pothole region.
“That area really is the most crucial zone and pretty much is the duck factory of the country. The issues that affect ducks there, end up affecting hunters in Texas,” said Jim Ringelman, Director of Conservation Programs for Ducks Unlimited (DU).
That region of the country has typically been ranching country and according to Ringelman, cattle and ducks work well together.
“Cattle and ducks have much of the same needs. They need grass and they need water. The problem comes when people convert ranches to farmland. The big farms like to drain the ponds because they can grow crops on the pond acreage, and that gives the ducks less habitat for nesting,” Ringelman said.
DU has been working on what they call “conservation easements” where they work out an agreement with landowners to pay them a fee for what the farmed area of wetlands on the property would be worth. In exchange, the landowners must not develop the wetlands.
“Easements are a great way for us to keep some of these wetlands intact and try to preserve what we have,” Ringelman said.
A different kind of problem comes in the form of nesting success related to predation.
Different kinds of predators exist in the region than there were even 50 years ago such as raccoons, which were historically not present on the plains. Red foxes and skunks are also in much higher numbers than ever, because the bottom fell out of the trapping market and government trappers became an endangered species.
For example, say 100 hens lay 500 eggs and on the second try; they lay 500 eggs for a total of 1000 eggs.
Fifty percent of those nests will be destroyed on the first nesting. Some 35 percent will perish on the second nesting. You can assume that out of that you will have 150 ducklings survive to hatch and then a large portion of them die from predation after being born.
We have had many years of strong fall flights, but as you can see there are many problems brewing that already impact duck hunting. How we respond to these things will make a difference in the future of waterfowl hunting. Ducks are certainly not in danger of extinction, but we are one big, prolonger drought away from a vastly different world of duck hunting.
Most modern duck hunters have never had a season half the length of our current seasons or a three-bird limit. A couple of years of solid drought on the prairies could make that happen.
And if we turn a blind eye to habitat problems, the picture could look vastly different in 20 years. We need to take time to understand what makes waterfowling its absolute best and move toward making those things happen.
—story by TF&G STAFF