The complexities of managing any species of wildlife can be extremely challenging for scientists, biologists and technologists working at the state level. At the federal level, where a multi-state approach must be taken, management policies often involve appointed boards from several jurisdictions, thus compounding some problems, especially those involving allocation of the species. Waterfowl management presents a host of demands. Since the species in question may migrate between at least two, and sometimes three countries, the complexities of management can become monumental.
Determining the population of ducks and geese in the Atlantic Flyway is a daunting assignment for waterfowl biologists at both the federal and state levels. In some instances, light aircraft are used to survey certain areas during spring and winter. These are times when waterfowl are either nesting, or are congregated in traditional wintering grounds.
Each survey has a specific goal, and each provides waterfowl managers with important information that is fed into computer modeling programs to determine the health of each species of ducks and geese. In the end, when all the data is digested, population estimates are produced, and other factors are taken into consideration. That’s when the various states submit their requests for hunting seasons to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for approval.
In all instances, hunting seasons and bag limits must conform to guidelines established by the USFWS. While some jurisdictions may request increases in bag limits or hunting days, one will likely offset the other. Essentially, any extensions of season or increases in bag limits must ultimately be approved by the USFWS, even if it involves resident geese and ducks.
(Resident & Migratory)
A classic example of the USFWS’ involvement with local waterfowl populations can be seen with regulations set forth to hunt non-migratory Canada geese, a species that in many jurisdictions is considered a nuisance. Essentially, seasons and bag limits for this particular species have been limited to times when there is little or no possibility of hunters bagging migratory Canada geese. Consequently, the season for non-migratory Canada geese usually takes place at the end of summer, just a few short weeks before the migratory stocks begin leaving the nesting grounds at the Ungava Peninsula and Boreal Forest in the Hudson Bay area of Canada.
While there is still some debate how these 17-pound giants were introduced to the Atlantic Flyway area, there is no question in anyone’s mind about the benefit these birds have provided to waterfowl hunters. During times when a hunting moratorium was in place for migratory Canada geese, non-migratory stock numbers were increasing at an alarming rate.
Local populations soared from just a few hundred birds in some states to more than 100,000 fowl that inhabited just about every body of water, regardless of its size. Currently, there are more than 1 million resident Canada geese in the Atlantic Flyway, and while the population figures show the number is somewhat stable, some jurisdictions are seeing dramatic increases in the number of local birds.
Keep in mind that most of the nesting areas utilized by non-migratory geese are off-limits to hunters. These include municipal park ponds, most farm ponds, city reservoirs, and more recently, federal- and state-mandated storm-water collection ponds. The storm-water collection ponds essentially collect run-off from impervious surfaces, such as parking lots, roads and driveways. These ponds help to control flooding from excessive runoff, and every new housing development, industrial park and shopping center has at least one of these ponds in place.
In some cases, within a few weeks of these ponds creation, resident geese will take up residence, build nests and lay large clutches of eggs. It’s not at all unusual to see entire families of geese basking in the sun along the shores of these ponds throughout much of the year. Because of this, the USFWS has consistently expanded bag limits over the past decade in an effort to control resident goose numbers. The goal is to hopefully reduce the resident population to approximately 625,000 geese, if at all possible.
“Until we get some additional tools, I’m not sure we can do that,” said veteran waterfowl biologist Larry Hindman when asked about reducing the non-migratory goose population. “Even if we get some additional tools, I’m not sure we can achieve those numbers. The population of resident geese is very strong and healthy, and they have been very resilient,” Hindman added.
“The Atlantic population of Canada geese (migratory stocks) last spring had a very early and strong nesting effort. Birds on the Hudson Bay coasts made up the lion’s share of those nesting, and the nesting pair numbers were up about 15 to 20 percent over last year, and maybe slightly higher than the high number of 2004,” Hindman said.
“The birds around Ungava Bay made up about 20 percent of the population, and nest densities were lower and there seemed to be quite a bit of predation from black bears,” Hindman added.
He believes the combination of harvest levels and predation by bears, plus some gull predation, is having a greater impact on nesting in this particular area. “These birds get hit pretty hard in southern Quebec, where hunting regulations are fairly liberal, so this group of birds seem as if they’re not doing nearly as well as the Hudson Bay coastal birds during nesting season.”
Hindman said he does not anticipate any change in hunting regulations for migratory Canada geese during the upcoming season. However, there is a proposal in to the USFWS to permit portions of some New England states to allow an earlier opening day, but this still must fit within the 45-day season and two-bird daily bag limit in all major harvest areas.
Snow goose populations seem to have stabilized throughout their range. While some of the population stabilization can be attributed to hunting in the United States, the major factor is the use of electronic calls, which were legalized in southern Quebec. Add on a spring hunting season for the species in Quebec as well and you have some containment of burgeoning snow goose numbers. Hindman said conservative hunting regulations, both in the United States and Canada, is keeping the birds in check, but the overall population of snow geese is still not near the target level.
“We hope to have those same conservation measures, such as electronic calls, unplugged guns, hunting a half-hour after sunset and spring hunting, allowed in some U.S. jurisdictions. This should help drive the population close
r to the population objective, which is approximately 500,000 birds. The current population is approximately 800,000 snow geese.”
Hindman said snow goose populations, and harvest levels, frequently fluctuate in conjunction with the proportion of young birds. During years of high production and good nesting success, the harvest tends to increase by a significant degree. Conversely, during years when production decreases, and nesting success is poor, there are more adults in the overall population, birds that tend to fly higher and be far more wary of hunters. “It takes lots of gray birds (yearlings) to provide hunters with a successful season.”
At press time, Hindman did not have information on snow goose or black brant nesting conditions, both of which seem to have experienced some increased nesting success over the past few years. Hindman did say, however, that we might see some liberalization of hunting regulations for brant this season, possibly a 50-day season with a two-bird daily bag limit. However, much of this was still in the proposal stage and nothing was etched in stone.
“We primarily monitor brant populations during the wintering survey, and if the wintering survey numbers drop, we take a look at the nesting conditions in the eastern Arctic and make a determination about the hunting season length and bag limit. Currently, my thinking is that we will have a 50-day season with a two-bird bag limit.”
Duck nesting conditions were far from ideal throughout much of their traditional nesting grounds. Spring weather was a bit too cold, particularly in the Northeast, where many Atlantic Flyway species typically reside during the nesting season. While scanty data was available at press time, there were indications that poor conditions likely led to significant decreases in nesting success.
Hindman said there are two species of ducks that are under very close scrutiny by the USFWS and state waterfowl biologists: black ducks and scaup. Apparently, last year’s milder than normal winter weather allowed black ducks to disperse over a much larger area than normal. Consequently, the midwinter count appeared a bit lower because birds that would normally be concentrated in small areas of open water were scattered over vast areas throughout their range.
Hindman said the warming trend resulted in one of the lowest mid-winter counts of black ducks in years, but he is fairly confident that the actual numbers are somewhat higher. “There appears to be a decline in black duck productivity, and this has the United States Fish and Wildlife Service worried, but I’m not so sure the Canadian Wildlife Service is worried because they see the same thing with mallards as well.”
Canadian wildlife officials reported a decline in age ratios in mallard ducks, yet the overall population of mallards appeared to be rising steadily over the past decade.
No one really seems to know exactly what is going on with black ducks, and while some scientists feel there seems to be a range-wide decline in productivity, others claim more adult birds surviving, thus this tends to lower the age ratio of birds harvested by hunters. Will there be changes in this season’s black duck seasons and bag limits? Hindman said this is a possibility, and that USFWS said they may reduce the harvest by as much as 25 percent. “I’m not sure the reduction will take place this year. It may, but this is still in the developmental stages.”
Good to excellent numbers of teal (mostly green-winged teal) were seen throughout their range during the past few years, especially in the Mid-Atlantic region. During years when winter’s weather is relatively mild, such as the winter of 2005, their migratory pattern appears to be widely dispersed and sporadic. However, when winter slams the Northeast to an unusual extent, the migration south seems to take place considerably earlier and the birds are more concentrated. Hindman said teal populations, both blue-winged and green-winged teal, look to be relatively stable; he doesn’t anticipate any changes in seasons or bag limits for the 2006-2007 seasons.
The wood duck population also seems to be relatively stable throughout much of its range. The birds are widely dispersed, and although loss of wetlands in developmental areas has reduced nesting sites to some degree, these ducks tend to adapt well to changing environmental conditions and find new nesting locations. Additionally, many conservation organizations spend countless hours and huge sums constructing nesting boxes for the species, which tends to keep production high, especially during abnormally cold, wet spring weather. Hindman does not anticipate any changes in wood duck seasons or bag limits for the 2006-2007 seasons.
Mallard duck numbers look to be down slightly, and their overall trend tends to show slight decreases in average population figures throughout their range. While the 2001 through 2005 averages are still relatively high at just over 149,000 birds, there has been a significant decline nearly every year since 1955 when the average was nearly 296,000 birds.
In some jurisdictions, local populations of mallards may influence winter survey numbers to some degree, thereby making the overall population appear to be somewhat higher. Hunter success with mallards tends to be high, but Hindman said it is unlikely that there will be any changes in season or bag limits for the species this year. If the upcoming winter survey for mallards shows similar declines in the overall population, this may paint a bleak picture for both the species and for waterfowl hunters.
While canvasback numbers are up slightly from the previous year, their 2001 to 2005 average remains lower than anytime since 1955. Currently, the Atlantic Flyway population stands at 58,980 birds, while the five-year average is 65,766. When compared with the 1955 total survey count of 302,035 canvasbacks, it becomes painfully obvious that their population has plummeted to a point where slight changes in environmental conditions could devastate the remaining population.
NEW SURVEY METHODS
Since 1961, estimates of waterfowl harvest, hunting activity and success in the United States have been derived from the USFWS’ Waterfowl Harvest Survey. This is a two-part survey including a mail/questionnaire survey (MQS) of individuals who purchased duck stamps with the intention of hunting waterfowl, and a waterfowl parts collection survey used to determine harvest by species, age and sex. Problems with using duck stamp purchasers as a sampling frame for harvest estimation led to the complete phasing out of the MQS in 2001 and the beginning of a new survey design in the mid-1990s.
The new survey, called the Harvest Information Program (HIP), was fully implemented in 1999. In this program, the harvest-sampling frame is derived from lists of those who have registered with state wildlife agencies as migratory bird hunters. The new questionnaire portion of the survey includes some species and groups of migratory game birds other than waterfowl (e.g., woodcock and doves). The parts collection portion of the survey was expanded to include these species and groups as well.
Since the source of participants and the mail/questionnaire survey in the Harvest Information Program are different from those in the previously used survey, the estimates of waterfowl harvests, hunting activity, and hunter success derived from the two surveys are not comparable. Consequently, much of the historic data used to determine population increases and declines is no longer used, but even with this new form of data from USFWS, overall duck populations seem to be in serious decline when compared with the figures obtained when the surveys began.
For this reason, the harvest estimates (1961-2001) based on the discontinued MQS were removed from USFWS annually updated compilation of Atlantic Flyway data titled “Waterfowl Harvest and Population Survey Data,” and placed in a separate compilation titled “Estimates of Waterfowl Harvest, Hunting Activity, and Success, 1961-2001.”
According to the latest survey figures, waterfowl hunters harvested a total of 1,407,700 ducks throughout the Atlantic Flyway during 2004-2005, the lowest harvest since 1999. Some of this decrease may be attributed to more stringent regulations put in place in an attempt to offset population declines seen over the past several decades. However, careful examination of all USFWS data, both population figures and hunter success numbers, indicates that hunters may again face significant decreases in season lengths and bag limits sometime in the very near future.