BISMARCK, N.D. — The windshield was cracked as if smacked by a golf ball. The running board on the passenger side was smashed upwards toward the door. But the real eye-catcher was the right front headlight, which was held in place by several strips of brown packing tape.
It’s difficult to appear confident when you approach the U.S. border in a vehicle like this — a 1998 Ford Explorer that smelled faintly of burning transmission fluid.
To further arouse suspicion, we were wearing camouflage hunting clothes and looked less than perky, having arisen at 4 a.m. to hunt ducks in Delta Marsh on this first Sunday of October. It was now 3 p.m. Photographer James Overstreet and I had miles to go before we slept, provided our journey didn’t end here.
We drove up to the gate blocking our entrance to the United States and handed our passports to the woman in the customs booth, along with a photocopied document stating that the Explorer had been loaned to us by the Delta Waterfowl Foundation.
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“We’ve seen lots of Delta Waterfowl vehicles go through here, but this has to be the worst,” said one of the two customs officers who had emerged from the booth to check our cargo.
We told him our destination was Bismarck, N.D., which appeared on the map to be about 250 miles away.
“How confident are you that this vehicle will make it?” the officer asked.
We could only laugh.
“If you’re looking for adventure,” the officer added, “there’s nothing more adventurous that traveling across North Dakota in a broke-down vehicle.”
Delta Waterfowl senior vice president John Devney got a chuckle out of that story when it was recounted at 6 o’clock the following morning in Bismarck. Delta Waterfowl has a reputation for being frugal with its funds, and we had survived proof of that.
North Dakota is now flush with both jobs and water. An oil boom in recent years has given this state the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. Snowmelt and spring rains had added even more adventure to our drive to Bismarck, as road closures due to high water caused us to make several detours.
The detours were made tolerable by the thought of what the wet weather meant for duck reproduction.
“From Sioux Falls, S.D, to Edmonton, Alberta, it was all wet, which almost never happens,” Devney said. “It’s the second-wettest year ever recorded across the whole of the prairie.”
The wet weather was the driving force in producing the May U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimate of 45.5 million ducks in the prairie pothole region, the highest number since the annual survey began in 1955.
A Minnesota native, Devney, 41, has worked in Delta’s Bismarck headquarters since 1998. He has been in this job long enough to gain some perspective about duck hunting in general and experience the changing role of Delta Waterfowl in particular.
Devney has an appreciation for the old duck hunting traditions. He shoots a Browning A-5, the semi-automatic shotgun that was patented in 1900 and mass-produced for almost a century. And he frequently hunts from a 1956 Alumacraft Ducker, a pirogue-style boat that his grandfather bought when it was new.
“Shooting a Browning A-5 out of a Ducker is about as close to the good old days as I can get,” Devney said.
The Ducker was filled with decoys, a passenger and Devney’s black Lab, Seamus, as he paddled across a large slough near Bismarck before sunrise on a Monday in October. In another example of how abundant the water is here, Devney noted that the land we were floating over had been dry enough to till a few years ago.
Devney’s job requires him to keep his eyes focused on the future of the sport. It was in 2000 that Delta Waterfowl recognized it could no longer concern itself only with ducks.
“Delta did nothing but research,” Devney said. “We were a bunch of science geeks.”
The organization will celebrate its 100th anniversary this year, but until 1998 it operated under different names, including the previous one, North American Wildlife Foundation. Biologist Jim Fisher was the first to recognize the trend that started a sea change in Delta Waterfowl.
“He was looking an the annual harvest report and realized we’d lost 70 percent of our duck hunters in Canada from the late ‘70s to the early ‘90s,” Devney said. “We looked at the U.S. The numbers were better, but we were still one-third down.
“That really changed our thinking. We realized we needed to have programs that addressed those declining numbers. We changed our mission statement. Delta Waterfowl is not about just ducks anymore. It’s about ducks and duck hunting. We need an abundance of both.”
Our morning hunt typified the contradiction that is part of every duck hunter. As daylight bathed the big slough surrounded by cattails, we were pleased to see no other hunters.
“No duck hunter wants to see another duck hunter,” Devney said. “There’s a tension in that we want duck hunting to be strong, but not in the hole next to us.”
When you do see another hunter next to you, he’s probably an old coot: Devney said the average age of a duck hunter now is 57.5 years old.
Delta Waterfowl is trying to lower that number. While continuing its waterfowl research exemplified by the Delta Marsh office, the organization has put new emphasis on hunter recruitment and retention. Delta’s First Hunt program was introduced this year. It will pair 900 mentors with 3,600 new hunters across the U.S. and Canada for a day of hunting ducks.
“That makes it the largest waterfowl recruitment program on the continent,” Devney said. “We set it up through our chapter system.”
The record fall flight predicted this fall is mostly a result of this wet year in the Prairie Pothole region of U.S. and Canada. Devney expects the slough where we were hunting will be tillable again in the not-too-distant future. In one aspect, that’s a good thing.
“The longer the water is present on the landscape, the lower the food production,” Devney said. “The temporary, seasonal wetlands are the source of the invertebrates that nourish ducks.”
Delta research has documented hens nesting and laying eggs as many as five times during the breeding season, if there is an abundance of aquatic invertebrates to keep them healthy.
“There’s a huge elongated period of production, if the food is there,” Devney said. “Of all the factors that influence duck populations, hunting is nine percent. Seventy-five percent, the overwhelming majority, is what happens on the breeding grounds, not the wintering grounds.”
If you’re ever hesitant to pull the trigger, keep that in mind.
This year’s record fall flight prediction aside, it can seem as if there are just too many threats aligning – led by the continuing loss of habitat and decreasing hunter numbers – to remain positive about the future of duck hunting.
“The next five years are going to be a real challenge,” Devney said. “We won’t always be this wet. We’re going to dry up. Short grain supplies, rising commodity prices and increasing demand for tillable acreage will likely come at the expense of ducks.
“But I think everything is cyclical, and I believe society, at some point, will place a value in wetlands.”
There were thousands of ducks flying around “Devney’s slough” early on this morning, but few came within gun range. We moved the decoy spread once, trying to find a place the ducks wanted to be, but that resulted in only a single blue-winged teal.
The number of ducks in the air diminished as the sun got higher, so we called it a day. As Devney paddled back to the launch site, wave upon wave of ducks lifted from the slough.
Obviously, we could have used a few more hunters.