August 22, 2022
Duck hunters in all four flyways have seen plenty of pandemic-related uncertainty over the last two and a half years, including fears of getting sick, dream trips being upended by closures and restrictions, shortages of ammo and other hunting gear, and lack of hard data from downtown Quackville.
Pandemic restrictions prevented biologists and aviators with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service from climbing into the cockpits of their aircrafts and flying the prairie skies to see how much water and how many breeding ducks were on the landscape.
Those surveys were locked out twice due to the pandemic, in both 2020 and in 2021. While biologists were able to rely on data sets and trends from previous surveys, they were still flying a little bit blind as the doughnut hole in the numbers threatened to affect the setting of future waterfowl hunting seasons and bag limits.
Thankfully, those biologists were finally able to soar and search for springtime breeding ducks earlier this year. Unfortunately, they found much of what they expected after drought and a two-year absence of hard data, and that's a downturn in duck numbers.
According to the Aug. 19 release of the USFWS 2022 Waterfowl Status Report, North America's duck populations have slid down a bit from historic highs recorded only a few years ago.
Waterfowl Hunter Can Still Smile
But still, things aren't as glum as they could have been, given the two years of missing figures and the serious 2021 drought that gripped large portions of the so-called Duck Factory in the northern Great Plains and southern Canada. Waterfowl scientists found a few notable bright spots, things that should help bring about some fairly good hunting this fall.
Specifically, the USFWS report showed that total waterfowl breeding numbers in the routinely surveyed portions of the North American duck factory numbered an estimated 34.2 million birds in 2022, a full 12-percent lower than the 38.9 million birds that biologists estimated in the last survey back in 2019. While the falling count wasn't unexpected, it was 4-percent below the long-term average (LTA) between 1955 and 2019.
In a breakdown by species, looking at graphics from Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, the waterfowl breeding population survey shows that breeding mallards numbered at 7.223 million in 2022, down from 9.423 million in 2019, a 23-percent fall over the past three years and a 9-percent departure from the LTA.
Next up in terms of biggest overall numbers is the blue-winged teal, which are starting to push south through the flyways in advance of September's early teal seasons. In terms of breeding numbers, bluewings showed 6.485 million birds in 2022, up 19 percent from 2019's figure of 5.427 million and up 27 percent over the LTA.
Bluebills, or scaup as the divers are technically known, had 3.599 million birds in this year's survey, basically unchanged from 2019's 3.590 million birds. Still, with bluebills struggling against the historical norms, the species is down 28 percent against the LTA.
Other species surveyed this year include:
- Gadwalls at 2.665 million in 2022, compared to 3.258 million in 2019; down 18 percent from 2019, but up 30 percent from the LTA.
- American wigeon at 2.127 million in 2022, compared to 2.832 million in 2019; down 25 percent from 2019 and 19 percent against the LTA.
- Green-winged teal stand at 2.170 million birds, down from 3.178 million in 2019; down 32 percent from 2019, but right on the long-term average.
- Northern Shovelers had a 2022 breeding population figure of 3.041 million birds down from 2019's 3.649 million breeding birds; down 17 percent from three years ago but up 15 percent over the LTA.
- Northern Pintails had 1.783 million birds, down from 2.268 million pintails in 2019; down 21 percent from 2019 and down a stunning 54 percent as compared to the LTA.
- Redheads have 0.991 million breeders this year, compared to 0.732 million breeding redheads in 2019. Those figures are bright spots in this year's survey, up 35 percent from 2019 and up 36 percent against the LTA.
- Canvasbacks stand at 0.585 million breeding cans in 2022, down from 2019's number of 0.651 million; down 10 percent from three years ago and down 1 percent versus the LTA.
More Bright Spots
While waterfowl managers and hunting industry veterans are still digesting the survey report, there are certainly a few reasons to smile. "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," said Dr. Steve Adair, the Bismarck, N.D.-based chief scientist for DU, in a news release.
"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. 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."
Delta Waterfowl's biologists also pointed out the increased water and potential for both late hatches this summer and good carry-over into the fall and winter, hopefully setting the stage for a better spring of production in 2023. Those hopes are fueled by this year's better precipitation trends, which found the May pond count showing 5.45 million ponds, some 4-percent above the LTA and 9-percent above the 2019 figures.
"Given the widespread dry conditions last year across most of the prairies where ducks breed, it's not surprising that the breeding population number is lower than it had been throughout most of the 2010s," said Dr. Chris Nicolai, waterfowl scientist for Delta Waterfowl, in a news release from the Bismarck, N.D.-based conservation organization.
"The good news is that much of the prairie — especially the Dakotas, Manitoba, and eastern Saskatchewan — was really wet this spring. Duck production should be good to excellent across the eastern part of the prairie and in the northern areas, too."
Even with the downturn in spring breeding numbers, Nicolai would classify this year's breeding effort as a strong one. And that will hopefully mean hunters will be mostly happy this fall when they return to their duck blinds, toss out the decoys, and watch the skies with a whining retriever.
"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 Nicolai in another Delta press release. "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."
Waterfowl 'Today, Tomorrow and Forever.'
Whatever the breeding numbers are this year, and whatever the full effects are on the fall flight this autumn, there's once again plenty of incentive to do all that one can do to support the cause of waterfowl and wetland conservation, from buying excise-tax paying new gear, to purchasing an extra duck stamp, to introducing someone new to the sport, and by attending your favorite local conservation fundraising dinner and spending a few George Washingtons.
Because, in wet years and dry, the work of waterfowl conservation never ceases, global pandemic or not.
"Whether it's good news or bad, Ducks Unlimited believes in following the 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," said DU CEO Adam Putnam from the organization's Memphis, Tenn.-based headquarters. "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.
"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."