Duck Numbers Remain High Despite Drier Duck Factory Weather
In what might be a bit of a surprise, the news for duck hunters looking forward to the 2015 fall flight of waterfowl remains good, really good.
And that's despite drier weather being noted over the past year in the traditional prairie pothole breeding grounds of southern Canada and the northern U.S.
In fact, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Trends in Duck Breeding Populations 2015 report was released earlier today, the overall number of spring breeding ducks actually went up just a bit from 2014 estimates, which were the highest ever recorded in the so-called "Duck Factory."
Following the completion of surveys across more than two million square miles of habitat, this year's estimate of the breeding duck population index stands at a record 49.5 million birds, up a slight bit from last year's previous high index mark of 49.2 million birds.
Some 51-percent above the 1955-2014 long-term average, this year's record spring breeding index comes despite a May pond count in the U.S. and Canada of 6.3 million wetlands.
Although that figure is quite a bit lower than last year's May pond count of 7.2 million, it remains some 21-percent above the long-term average.
Despite the record breeding index, biologists warn that tougher times will be forthcoming to the prairies in future years if the drying trend and habitat loss trends noted this past year continue.
“An early spring balanced with poorer habitat conditions was apparent in this year’s survey,” said Ducks Unlimited chief conservation officer Paul Schmidt.
“In addition to reduced precipitation over the winter and early spring, we have lost critical nesting habitat with the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program lands and continuing conversion of habitat to agricultural production across the U.S. prairies.
"Fortunately, these conditions had minimal impacts on this year’s overall breeding bird numbers, but hunters should be concerned about these trends and what they might mean in future years."
DU CEO Dale Hall echoed those sentiments: "We are fortunate to see continued high overall duck populations in North America’s breeding areas this year,” he said. “Though conditions were dry in some important habitats, we had large numbers of birds returning this spring and good conditions in the boreal forest and other areas of Canada.
"It looks like some typical prairie nesters skipped over the U.S. prairies and took advantage of good conditions farther north. This is an important reminder about the critical need for maintaining abundant and high-quality habitat across the continent.
"The boreal forest, especially, can provide important habitat when the prairies are dry. But the boreal is under increasing threats from resource extraction.”
While there is ample reason to be concerned with future years, hunters should have another good season potentially ahead of them this year.
That's because the current spring breeding index marks only the ninth time in the survey's history (from 1955 until the present) that the total breeding duck population has exceeded 40 million birds.
Specifically, spring breeding index estimates for various duck species are as follows:
- Mallards: 11.6 million, which is up from the 2014 estimate of 10.9 million greenheads and some 51-percent above the long-term average.
- Gadwall: 3.8 million, which is very similar to the 2014 estimate of 3.81 million and 100-percent ahead of the long-term average.
- American wigeon: 3.0 million, which is similar to the 2014 estimate and 17-percent over the long-term average.
- Green-winged teal: 4.1 million, which is 19% above the 2014 estimate of 3.44 million birds and some 98-percent above the long-term average.
- Blue-winged teal: 8.5 million, which is similar to the 2014 estimate of 8.54 million (the third highest level ever recorded) and 73-percent beyond the long-term average.
- Northern shovelers: 4.4 million, some 17-percent below the 2014 estimate of (5.28 million, an all-time high for the species), but still 75-percent above the long-term average.
- Northern pintails: 3.0 million, which is similar to the 2014 estimates while still lagging some 24-percent below the long-term average.
- Redheads: 1.2 million, down slightly from the 2014 estimate of 1.28 million (the second highest breeding index ever recorded for redheads), but still some 71-percent ahead of the long-term average.
- Canvasbacks: 0.76 million, which is similar to the 2014 estimate and 30-percent above the long-term average.
- Scaup (bluebills): 4.4 million, which is similar to the 2014 estimate but still some 13-percent below the long-term average.
The spring breeding index surveys will form the scientific basis for management decisions later this month as the four U.S. flyway councils and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service meet to recommend to states the season structure and bag limits for the 2015-16.
As has been the case for a number of years now in these good times on the prairie, that will almost certainly be the liberal regulations package that mixes maximum bag limits, length of hunting seasons and actual start/stop dates into the available options.
After such framework has been set, individual states will make their specific season selections for their hunting constituents towards the end of summer.
All in all, it's once again a spring of great news for waterfowl hunters looking forward to this year's fall flight of ducks, albeit with a cautious eye cast to the future if drier weather and habitat loss continue.
"We have experienced good moisture in the prairies and liberal bag limits for more than two decades," said Schmidt. "Continuing habitat losses and drier conditions have the potential to change this scenario in the future.”
But not for this year at least, a year that should bring good hunting to hunters across all four U.S. flyways as another strong fall flight of ducks comes roaring south on the northern winds of autumn later this year.