The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released its much anticipated annual report on duck numbers by way of the 2016 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey.
As we predicted from following a sampling of waterfowl biologist and surveyor reports from across the prairie pothole nesting grounds of the northern U.S. and southern Canada, the news is generally good with a sprinkling of negative reports mixed in here and there.
The best news from the report is this year's duck breeding population numbers from the North American Duck Factory remain near all-time highs with a total of 48.36 million ducks estimated in this year's breeding population survey.
For the record, the figure is only down a scant two percent from last year's all-time record breeding population number of 49.52 million birds. And don't forget the 2015 record number topped the previous record mark set in 2014 when 49.2 million breeding ducks were reported.
For a little perspective, this year's breeding number of 48.36 million ducks – which represents the springtime breeding population estimates for the 10 most populous duck species that nest and breed in the fabled Duck Factory – remains 38 percent above the long-term average (LTA).
This year's duck breeding population figure also marks only the 10th time in the survey's history (from 1955 until the present) that the total breeding population has exceeded 40 million birds.
That LTA figure, by the way, has been gleaned down through the years as biologists in the U.S. and Canada have done ground and aerial surveys to produce the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's annual May breeding population survey and pond counts.
In the middle of all of that good news from the report is the fact this year's survey also marks the highest breeding estimates ever recorded for both mallards and green-winged teal.
Mallards increased to 11.79 million breeders this spring, up one percent from last year's figure of 11.64 million greenheads and up an astounding 51 percent above the LTA.
Similarly, green-winged teal numbers are at 4.27 million breeders this year, up five percent from last year's figure of 4.08 million and up an amazing 104 percent over the LTA.
The scaup, or bluebill as many hunters call them, also is doing well this year, sporting some 4.99 million breeders this year. That figure is up 14 percent versus last year's survey number and is statistically normal versus the LTA.
Other species getting a thumbs up in this year's report is the American wigeon (3.41 million this year, up 12 percent from last year and up 31 percent over the LTA) and the redhead (1.28 million this year, up eight-percent from a year ago and up an amazing 82 percent versus the LTA).
So where's the bad news in this year's report? Well, if you can call it bad news, a few duck species have shown small declines from a year ago although most remain well above the LTA.
And in a similar line of thought, May pond counts this year, which checked in at 5.01 million, are down a fair amount from last year's mark of 6.3 million. But that news is tempered by the fact this year's May pond count numbers actually continue to be very similar to the LTA of 5.2 million ponds.
Specifically, the gadwall, or gray duck as many hunters call it, checks in at 3.71 million breeders this year. While the figure is down three percent from 2015's number of 3.83 million, gadwall numbers remain some 90 percent above the LTA.
Other duck species finding a mixture of news this year include the canvasback (736,000 breeders this year, down three percent from last summer but still 26 percent above the LTA); the northern shoveler (3.96 million breeders this year, down 10 percent from last year but still 56 percent above the LTA); and the blue-winged teal (6.68 million breeders, down 22 percent from last year's mark of 8.54 million but still 34 percent above the LTA).
Of greatest concern to waterfowl biologists and hunters continues to be the plight of the northern pintail, which sports 2.61 million breeders this spring versus last year's figure of 3.04 million. That's down a troubling 14 percent from a year ago and down some 34 percent versus the LTA.
So what does all of this number crunching mean? Most likely, a pretty good duck hunting season is waiting in the wings for waterfowlers this fall.
"In light of the dry conditions that were observed across much of the northern breeding grounds during the survey period, it is reassuring to see that the breeding population counts were little changed from last year," said Scott Yaich, chief scientist for the Memphis, Tenn.-based, Ducks Unlimited (www.ducks.org), in a DU news release.
"But with total pond counts similar to the long-term average, and with hunting season and winter mortality being a relatively small part of annual mortality, it's not surprising to see that populations largely held steady."
Dr. Frank Rohwer, president of the Bismarck, N.D. based Delta Waterfowl (www.deltawaterfowl.org), also gave a glowing report in his organization's news release.
"The duck numbers are amazingly good," said Rohwer. "Mallard numbers are especially surprising and show why they are the most abundant duck in the world. They adapt to conditions exceptionally well."
As good as some of the 2016 duck numbers are, there is even the possibility that those numbers could get even better by the start of this autumn's waterfowl hunting seasons.
That's because late spring and early summer rains in the Dakotas and across the prairie nesting grounds of southern Canada could spurn some late nesting and re-nesting efforts.
"What's not reflected in the report is that there was fairly significant improvement in habitat conditions after the surveys were completed," said Yaich. "In some key production areas, heavy June and July rains greatly improved wetland conditions.
"This could benefit brood rearing and the success of late nesting species, as well as give a boost to overall production through re-nesting by early nesting species," he added.
Yaich's waterfowl conservation counterpart agreed and noted that a couple of prairie nesting species could see numerical improvement after this summer's rains.
"Gadwalls will likely take advantage of the improved water conditions we had late May and June and mallard production should be helped by it too," said Rohwer. "Mallards are strong re-nesters."
As mentioned above, tempering the abundant good news is some not so good news, specifically the ongoing decline of pintails.
Once upon a time, pintails – or sprigs as some hunters call them – were among the most numerous of the prairie nesting duck species.
But their numbers have been dropping steadily over the past couple of decades – this year's sprig breeding number marks the fifth straight year of decline – for reasons not entirely clear to biologists.
"It's really clear that the pintails overflew the prairies," said Rohwer, noting a 60-percent decline in sprig breeding numbers in southern Saskatchewan. "Pintails and bluewings didn't find the seasonal and temporary wetlands they prefer for breeding, so much of the population did not settle in the prairies.
"When pintails overfly the prairies, production is always down," he added.
Another factor tempering this summer's good duck breeding news is the fact the drier prairies this spring could mean less juvenile ducks flying south this fall. This could mean ducks will be harder to decoy this upcoming season and hunters may have a tougher time filling out limits despite the excellent population news.
"We'll be hunting flocks with more adult ducks in them this season, but the flights should be strong," Rohwer predicted.
And while the duck breeding news remains good for now, the recent run of wet conditions on the prairie pothole nesting grounds and the strong fall flights of ducks that such conditions have been producing won't last forever.
Coupled with the ongoing assault on vital wetlands in the northern breeding country, the middle staging grounds and the southern wintering areas and the fact remains this is no time for conservation-minded duck hunters to rest upon their laurels after several years of good news.
“Watching the changing habitat over the spring and summer this year underscores the importance of two things," said Yaich. "First, we must simply accept that habitat and populations are going to vary over time. They always have and they always will.
"Second, that’s why we need to keep a steady hand on the course of our conservation efforts," he added. "Our job is to steadily make deposits into the habitat bank account so that when the precipitation and other conditions are right, the ducks will do the job that they do so well, which is to produce more ducks and provide us all a nice return on our investments.”
For those who love to chase ducks, not to mention enthusiastically support the conservation work of both Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, those are wise words indeed.
To read the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report, click the link: 2016 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey