OWING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, the last U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) duck breeding population survey was released in 2019.
According to officials with Ducks Unlimited (DU) total populations were estimated at 34.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, 12 percent lower than 2019’s estimate of 38.9 million and four percent below the long-term average (since 1955).
DU Chief Scientist Dr. Steve Adair said, “Although the beneficial effects of timely precipitation during late winter and spring were evident by high pond counts across the eastern prairies, the total duck estimate in the Traditional Survey Area was the lowest in nearly 20 years.”
“The drop in duck numbers reflects the consequences of low production caused by multiple years of prairie drought, including 2021, which was one of the most severe and widespread in nearly four decades,” Adair said. “But the survey revealed some bright spots for duck populations and provided optimism for good production this summer and carry-over of favorable pond conditions into fall and winter.”
“Whether it’s good news or bad,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam, “DU believes in following science. We are grateful for our federal, state, and provincial partners resuming the surveys to gather the data we’ve all come to rely on.”
“This year’s survey revealed what many expected, lower breeding duck populations partly as result of the drought we’ve experienced the last few years,” Putnam said. “While we never like to see these declines, we know that prairie drought can increase wetland productivity and sets the stage for waterfowl success when the water returns, much as it did this spring in parts of the prairie. We will not stop working toward our vision of skies filled with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.”
Dr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl’s president and chief scientist, added to the concept of production being up following a drought.
“Predators have a hard time in drought years just like ducks do, so ducks tend to get a break when the water comes back on the prairies,” he said. “Our Predator Management sites and duck nesting surveys are showing very high nest success this year.”
Delving into the survey results, the breeding mallard population was estimated at 7.22 million, which is nine percent below the long-term average in the survey, which dates back to 1955. In fact, the breeding mallard population is the lowest since 2005. Still, mallard production should be good this year across much of the prairie according to Delta officials.
Blue-winged teal, the second-most abundant duck in the survey at 6.49 million, are 27 percent above the long-term average and 19 percent above the 2019 population. Green-winged teal indexed at 2.17 million, a 32 percent decrease from 2019 but right at the long-term average.
“Teal numbers are the surprise of the survey,” Rohwer said. “It’s the opposite of what we might expect, with bluewings being so high and greenwings being down.”
Among other puddle ducks, gadwalls came in at 2.67 million, down 18 percent but still 30 percent above the long-term average. Wigeon declined 25 percent to 2.13 million, 19 points below the long-term average, while shovelers at 3.04 million remain 15 percent above the long-term average.
Among the diving duck species estimated in the survey, scaup, aka bluebills were estimated at 3.6 million, 28 percent below the long-term average, but unchanged from 2019. Canvasbacks came in at 585,000, which is only one percentage point below the long-term average and 10 below 2019. Redheads increased to 991,000, up 35 percent from 2019 and 36 percent above the long-term average.
“Prairie-nesting duck species such as blue-winged teal, gadwalls, mallards and redheads should really benefit from the wet conditions in the eastern Dakotas and Manitoba,” said Dr. Chris Nicolai, waterfowl scientist for Delta.
“Hunters should see a lot more young ducks compared to last year. Remember that we hunt the fall flight, not just the breeding population. The years when duck production is strong — like this year should be — generally provide the best hunting seasons.”
Pond and breeding duck counts aren’t the only thing impacting waterfowl hunters this season. Duck hunters planning to hunt in Canada this year dodged a bullet so to speak.
A USDA-APHIS regulation, announced on September 2, 2022, immediately disallowed game birds taken by hunters in Canada from entering the United States, regardless of the province in which they were taken.
DU scientists along with other conservation groups held several discussions with USDA APHIS, making the case there’s little existing evidence this regulation would have a meaningful impact on the spread of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in the U.S.
USDA-APHIS then shifted their position.
“We certainly understand and appreciate the importance of limiting the spread of HPAI in the U.S.,” said DU Senior Waterfowl Scientist, Dr. Mike Brasher.
“But based on data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service, U.S. hunters and their harvested birds imported from Canada pose relatively minimal risks in this regard. DU will use this opportunity to communicate with waterfowl hunters about these new import restrictions and USDA APHIS voluntary guidelines that will provide additional safeguards against the spread of HPAI this fall and winter.”
Under the new restrictions, unprocessed hunter-harvested wild game bird carcasses, originating from or transiting Canada, must meet the following conditions:
• Viscera, head, neck, feet, skin, and one wing have been removed; and
• Feathers have been removed, with the exception of one wing, as required by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for species identification; and
• Carcasses must be rinsed in fresh, clean, potable water prior to packaging and must not have visible evidence of contamination with dirt, blood, or feces; and
• Carcasses must be imported in leak-proof plastic packaging and stored in a leak-proof cooler or container during transport and import; and
• Carcasses must be chilled or frozen during transport and import.
“We appreciate USDA’s willingness to hear the concerns from DU and revise this rule in a practical and scientific manner,” said DU CEO Adam Putnam.
“This revision is not only a win for American waterfowlers but also for the application of sound science,” he said. “Now, waterfowlers who’ve already departed north of the Canadian border have clear guidance on how to limit the spread of HPAI and bring their harvested game birds back into the U.S. safely.”
—story by TF&G STAFF