Sometimes, we don’t want to be right here at Game & Fish, especially when it comes to less-than-desired duck numbers.
Case in point is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s release earlier today of its 2019 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey Report.
While the result was somewhat expected – we were afraid of this possibility a few weeks ago – there was hope that somehow our educated guess might be a bit off the mark.
In the right direction that is, a direction that has seen duck breeding number reports be near all-time highs in some years over the past decade. But when the most recent USFWS report was issued earlier today, it confirmed that when it comes to ducks, precipitation and corresponding good habitat is always key in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America.
Specifically, the voluminous 78-page report by USFWS biologists shows a breeding population index number of 38.9 million breeding ducks for 2019.
“In general, habitat conditions during the 2019 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey (WBPHS) were similar to or declined relative to 2018, with a few exceptions,” stated a USFWS news release. “Much of the Canadian prairies experienced below-average precipitation from fall 2018 through spring 2019.”
The news release did note, however, that the exception to this year’s drier conditions in southern Canada was the northern U.S. Great Plains, where habitat was much better: “The U.S. prairies experienced average to above-average precipitation over most of the region.”
While the 2019 breeding index number is only down 6 percent from the 2018 breeding population figure of 41.2 million, this year’s mark does continue the recent downward trend of survey numbers. It’s also a far cry from the 47.3 million observed in 2017 and the first time that spring breeding numbers have dipped below the 40-million mark since 2008.
The reason for that downward slide? Less water on the prairies, which means less breeding habitat for ducks.
“Overall, both total ponds and total populations of breeding waterfowl in the Prairie Pothole Region were down slightly,” noted Ducks Unlimited Chief Scientist Dr. Tom Moorman in a news release.
“However, important breeding areas in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan were much drier than last year, which contributes to reduced numbers of breeding waterfowl observed in the survey. Fortunately, eastern North Dakota and South Dakota saw an increase in both ponds and breeding waterfowl, especially mallards, blue-winged teal, gadwalls, northern shovelers, and northern pintails.”
In view of Moorman’s last statement, it’s important to note that in some ways, the glass remains half-full since this year’s breeding number remains some 10 percent above the long-term average (LTA) from 1955-2018.
With a mixture of good and not-so-good news for waterfowlers in Canada and the Lower 48, the 2019 breeding numbers as seen in the USFWS report, and in a Delta Waterfowl table, show that three very important puddle duck species – mallards, gadwalls and green-winged teal – showed increases this spring as compared to a year ago.
That’s certainly better news than a year ago at this time when only the American wigeon showed an increase from the previous year.
Mallards, the most popular duck species for hunters in the North American continent’s four different flyways, showed a breeding population number of 9.42 million breeders in 2019, up 2 percent from the 2018 figure of 9.26 million breeders. What’s more, this year’s greenhead breeding duck figure is some 19 percent above the LTA figure.
Gadwalls reversed the big drop they suffered a year ago, rising 13 percent from the 2.89 million breeders recorded in 2018 to 3.26 million breeders this year. And like the mallard, federal officials say that his year’s gadwall figure is well above the LTA mark, too. In fact, gadwalls – or gray ducks as some call them – are a whopping 61 percent above that 1955-2018 LTA figure.
Green-winged teal are another bright spot in this year’s breeding duck numbers report, checking in at 3.18 million birds in 2019 as compared to 3.04 million in 2018. That’s not only a 4-percent increase from a year ago, it also puts greenwings some 47 percent above the LTA.
While American wigeon didn’t rise any – statistically speaking, that is - from last year’s figure of 2.82 million breeders, the 2019 figure of 2.83 million breeders is still just a slight tick up from 2018 numbers. That figure for baldpates is also some 8 percent above the LTA.
What about the other common duck species measured each year by the annual USFWS breeding number’s report?
Unfortunately, the news there is much more mixed, down in general from a year ago, but still healthy as compared to the LTA numbers for each species. The exception, of course, remains the beleaguered northern pintail and scaup, where the news remains glum at best.
Those other species include: blue-winged teal (5.43 million breeders in 2019, down 16 percent from 6.45 million in 2018 but still 6 percent above the species’ LTA); northern shovelers (3.65 million in 2019, down 13 percent from the species’ mark of 4.21 million in 2018, but still some 39 percent above the LTA); northern pintails (2.27 million in 2019, down 4 percent from last year’s mark of 2.37 million and down 42 percent from the LTA); scaup (both lesser and greater scaup combined, 3.59 million in 2019, down 10 percent from the mark of 3.99 million in 2018 and down 28 percent over the LTA); redheads (730,000 in 2019, down 27 percent from 2018’s figure of 1 million and a dead heat with the species’ LTA figure); and canvasbacks (650,000 in 2019, down 5 percent from the mark of 690,000 in 2018, but still up 10 percent over the LTA).
The slight decline in overall 2019 duck breeding numbers isn’t a surprise when one considers that the other part of the annual survey work by the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service – May pond count numbers – fell to 4.99 million, down 5 percent from the 2018 May pond count number of 5.23 million. This year’s pond count figure is also 5 percent below the LTA.
On the Canadian side of the border, the drop was even more precipitous, falling to 2.86 million in 2019 as compared to 3.66 million a year ago. That figure is 22 percent below 2018 numbers and 19 percent versus the LTA.
On the U.S. side of the border, the habitat news was much better with May pond counts at 2.14 million versus 1.57 million a year ago. This year’s figure for the northern U.S. is up 36 percent from a year ago and up 26 percent over the LTA.
“It’s a tale of two countries this year,” said Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of the Bismarck, N.D.-based Delta Waterfowl, in a news release. “Canada started out dry, and it got drier. The U.S. prairies, particularly in the Dakotas, started wet and stayed wet That bodes well for renesting and duckling survival in the Dakotas.”
Keep in mind that while the news is mixed this year with some good, some not-so-good, things are still in a much better place than they were a generation ago when terrible drought gripped the Duck Factory and caused duck numbers to plummet to historic lows.
“The last long-term drought period that we had across the breeding grounds was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when our bird counts were way down and we had more restrictive regulations,” said Jim Dubovsky of the USFWS’s Division of Migratory Bird Management in Lakewood, Colorado, in another recent Ducks Unlimited news release.
“Mother Nature has a lot to say about when and where these birds migrate, but in terms of having the habitat conditions needed to produce waterfowl, we’ve been in a good place for quite a long time.”
Also note that the numbers mentioned above are simply the springtime breeding index figures for each species. And since ducks are resilient, usually finding good habitat when it exists, fall flight numbers should still be good this autumn. As is usually the case, as long as the habitat is there, the ducks will generally be there too.
“Typically, when the Dakotas are wet and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan are dry, we see the aforementioned species settle in the Dakotas, reminding us that we must conserve habitat across the prairies because it is rare for the entire Prairie Pothole Region to be wet,” said DU’s Moorman in his group’s news release. “Ultimately, however, hunting success and numbers of birds observed will vary with the onset of fall and winter cold fronts and arrival of winter conditions necessary to force birds to migrate, and also with regional habitat conditions.”
Meaning that once again, there should be plenty of ducks winging their way south across North America this fall and winter, much to the delight of duck hunters waiting in Game & Fish country as they sit in blinds, wade in flooded timber, and slosh through marshes with their canine retrieving pals at heel.
No matter which flyway you plan to hunt this fall and winter, keep checking back here for more at Game & Fish as we get you ready for Duck Season 2019-20.