Forecasting the Mississippi Flyway
September 30, 2016
Federal biologists surveyed the waterfowl landscape and counted ponds and birds. That information, along with assessments of habitat conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing seasons, was reviewed and released as a massive document called the 2016 Waterfowl Population Status report. It's the annual, continent-wide overview of waterfowl numbers and habitats that traditionally has guided the setting of annual hunting season dates and bag limits.
But this year, things are different.
We already knew what those seasons will look like for 2016-17 — even before the 2016 status report was released in July 2016. Hunting seasons were proposed, debated and set in March this year. That marked a major departure from the decades-old process for managing North America's waterfowl populations.
"Beginning with the 2016-17 hunting seasons, a new process and schedule will be used for setting annual migratory bird hunting regulations," the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states in an explanatory paper. "Regulatory decisions will be made using biological data observed the previous year."
What about freak weather events this spring and summer? What about potential spikes — up or down — in the number of birds that showed up on the breeding grounds? What about the impact hunters had on ducks and geese this past season?
Is it a good thing that hunting seasons now will be established based on year-old data?
The federal government says the change is needed to allow adequate time for biologists to properly digest and weigh the mountain of waterfowl-population data gathered each year; to provide enough time for states to choose hunting season dates and bag limits from within federal guidelines; and to allow sufficient time for public review of those seasons and bags before the seasons open.
Historically, the process for setting the regular waterfowl hunting seasons and bag limits followed the same pattern from the 1950s until last year. (There was a separate process for setting the special early resident goose seasons and early-September duck seasons.) Biologists would survey Canada, the Arctic and parts of the northern U.S. in the spring to count ducks, geese and ponds. Those counts would be combined with harvest data from the previous hunting season. Forecasts then would be made for nesting effort, brood survival and fall flights by late summer. All of this information would be released in late July in a report called the "Status of Waterfowl."
Councils of biologists and other waterfowl managers in each of North America's four flyways — Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific - — would meet right around the time the big report was released to the public to make recommendations to USFWS on the frameworks for hunting seasons and bag limits for the coming hunting year. The frameworks set the stage for what individual states can hunt and when.
For example, last year, the USFWS proposed duck seasons lasting 60 days in the Mississippi Flyway. The overall daily limits were six ducks. Those frameworks were announced on Aug. 3, 2015.
The season frameworks specify dates between which hunting seasons can occur. It's up to individual states to choose when they want their respective seasons to run within those periods.
In some northern states, the USFWS was announcing final waterfowl seasons almost at the exact time some of those seasons were starting.
"We were always so darned rushed to get this done every year," said Larry Reynolds, Waterfowl Study Leader with Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Beginning this year, frameworks for all waterfowl seasons, bag limits and regulations were created by USFWS in early March. Individual states used those frameworks to select season dates in late March and early April, and the federal government is expected to officially set that information in stone in late May.
That's basically just days after biologists from the U.S. and Canada will have finished flying over important nesting areas to survey waterfowl breeding populations and habitat conditions. Also around that time, states will be compiling their harvest estimates from the 2015-16 season to submit to USFWS.
So all of that new information won't be relevant to waterfowl managers until next year. The information used in setting the 2016-17 seasons was gathered last year at this time.
Why would the federal government eschew the most recent data in favor of information that's a year old?
"Data such as the results of spring breeding population surveys, estimates of the harvest during the previous season, and band recovery information are not compiled until early summer, at the time regulatory recommendations (were) being developed," the agency states.
"As a result, the main disadvantages of the (former) process are that there was not much time for biologists to analyze the survey and monitoring data that inform the regulatory decisions, and there was not much time for public comment on the regulations recommendations."
Reynolds readily admits he initially was opposed to changing the management program. He wanted to continue using current-year data to set waterfowl hunting seasons and bag limits.
"Two and a half years ago, when this was first discussed, I was a definite 'no' vote," he said. "I was offended that we were going to turn our well-established process upside down because we couldn't get our homework done on time. We've done this the same way for 55 years. Why change it now?"
But then Reynolds said he and other like-minded managers began digging into the USFWS' five decades of data gathered for wildfowl management. They found trends that eased their concerns.
"There really haven't ever been any big, one-year swings," he said. "That is, there was never a year where we had a lot of ducks, and then, the next year, we had hardly any, and vice versa."
Populations trend up or down over many years, Reynolds said.
"And hunting seasons and bag limits have no affect on those trends," he said.
As an example, Reynolds pointed to the nosedive mallard numbers took in the mid-1980s. In 1984, the basic duck season framework for the Mississippi Flyway allowed a 55-day season and the daily taking of up to 10 ducks — five of which could be mallard. Mallard numbers had been dropping for a couple of years, and so the duck season in 1985 was cut to 45 days, with a maximum bag limit of five ducks per day, only four of which could be mallards. A few years after that, the season was cut to 30 days, with a three-bird daily bag.
"Do you know what happened to mallard numbers all through those years?" Reynolds said. "They continued to decline until some water started coming back to the prairies in the early 1990s."
With better habitat, mallard numbers climbed through the 1990s, according to Reynolds. And so hunting seasons and bag limits were slowly liberalized.
"Again, we saw that increasing the hunting season and bag didn't do anything to stem the growth of the mallard population," he said.
But what about freak weather events, such as floods, severe drought and heavy snow in the spring?
"Those things might impact some ducks and geese locally, but we haven't seen one-year weather events affect waterfowl continent-wide," said John Devney, Delta Waterfowl's vice president of U.S. policy. "Fifty years of history shows us it just doesn't happen that way."
It's precisely those local, freak events that worry Kent Van Horn, a migratory game bird ecologist with Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In Wisconsin, 70 percent of the mallards shot by hunters each year, "are hatched right here in Wisconsin," he said.
"Arkansas might get their mallards from all over the continent, but we get most of ours from our backyard. I have to be concerned about local weather events."
A freak flood or drought in Wisconsin one year could impact that state's mallard reproduction in a given year. Under the old system, there was time for the state to react to such an event ahead of the next fall's hunting season. Not anymore.
"What that could mean is that we end up putting extra pressure on our four and five-year-old ducks — our breeders — rather than our young-of-the-year birds," Van Horn said. "That's not good."
Van Horn acknowledged the likelihood of causing a crash through hunting in one year is very slim, but it's still something that concerns him.
"We will be watching things closely for the next several years, I can tell you that," he said.
Devney believes that if biologists notice a sudden decline in a certain duck population one year, they can make corrections the next year.
"If it's true that our hunting seasons don't impact populations anyway, then does it really matter if there's a one-year lag in our data?" Reynolds said.
Devney said he believes North America's waterfowl population estimates historically have been on the low side, which means they're always conservative, and, subsequently, ducks and geese are safe from being overhunted.
"Duck hunters may be under the impression that we have incredible precision in our counts," he said. "In reality, there is a great deal of imprecision, and there is very little risk we will overhunt ducks under the new system."
For the first time ever, states that operate hunting seasons on a fiscal calendar will be able to include waterfowl seasons and bag limits in the digest of hunting information published annually when licenses go on sale. Many states historically have had to create special brochures — at additional expense — dedicated solely to waterfowl hunting seasons because those seasons weren't established by the time the hunting digests were printed.
Does the fact that the new process will rely on the previous year's observations mean managers will tend to be more conservative — restrictive — with hunting seasons, rules and bag limits?
USFWS says, "No" — except in certain, limited situations. And they've done tests using historical data to verify that position.
"Simulations comparing harvest management performance based on the current versus the previous year's monitoring data suggest that, in almost all cases, the new process will not make the regulations more restrictive," the agency states.
"For those species where we have less data, the (USFWS) likely will continue to follow a more conservative approach to harvest management, as it does now, to reduce the likelihood that hunting would have a negative impact on the species. Species that have relatively small populations that may be sensitive to overharvest, such as brant, may be the exceptions, especially if most stakeholders decide that it is prudent to be conservative."
Canada has regulated its waterfowl hunting on a timeline similar to the USFWS' new system for years, Reynolds noted.
"And they certainly haven't had any problems up there," he said.
For the most part, there seems to be very little chatter from hunters themselves about the new regulatory process. Popular waterfowling message boards seem devoid of discussions, possibly indicating a lack of concern — or maybe hunters just don't know about the change yet. Devney said the Delta hunters he's talked to are excited to have more time to plan.
Time will tell what impact, if any, the change will have. For now, get out your calendars and start planning those hunts.