Our state's duck hunters had mixed results last fall, while goose hunters bagged 82,033 honkers. What will the 2004 season bring?
By Dan Small
Kent Van Horn, the new migratory game-bird ecologist for Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources, was on the job a scant two weeks back in January when he found himself up to his ears in waterfowl hunters at the annual Ducks Unlimited state convention in Stevens Point. From there, he leapfrogged around our state, meeting with local hunting clubs and associations, and joining field biologists on population surveys.
"I'm in an evaluation mode," Van Horn said in an interview in May. "I intend to spend most of my first year getting around the state, seeing conditions on the ground and meeting with waterfowl hunters."
Van Horn wants to take the pulse of Wisconsin's waterfowl hunters and assess the resource before making any recommendations for changes in the way ducks and geese are managed and hunted here. It's a smart move, and one that will no doubt gain the respect of hunters and managers.
Following jobs in wetlands and waterfowl management in Alaska, Florida, Illinois and Missouri, and a five-year stint here as a public lands specialist, Van Horn brings a wealth of experience to Wisconsin's top waterfowl management position. A good listener, he already has a pretty good handle on state waterfowl hunters and what they want.
"Wisconsin has two main types of waterfowl hunters," he says. "One group of hunters is real serious about their sport. They hunt ducks all season and talk about ducks the rest of the year. Then there's a much larger group who get out a few weekends in a 60-day season."
These two groups have different interests, and Van Horn wants to make sure both are represented when decisions are made that affect hunting opportunities.
"A lot of waterfowlers keep track of the resource," Van Horn said. "They have a lot of questions about habitat conditions across the continent, how we fit into that picture and how hunting regulations impact the duck population. Not all these questions can be easily answered."
Van Horn hopes to see hunters take a greater initiative in hunter ethics and the training of new waterfowl hunters. That's the best way they can benefit the future of the sport, he believes.
When asked back in May what waterfowl hunting opportunities Wisconsin hunters might face in October, Van Horn wisely pointed out that it was way too early to know, but that there were a few indications even at that early date.
With a Canada goose and drake mallard already in the bag, Delafield's Jerry Solsrud and Red the Lab hunt a picked cornfield. Photo by Dan Small
"Reports from the Canadian prairies in April indicated that some areas were dry, and some had good water levels," he said. "Here in Wisconsin, wetland conditions started out average in early April but temporary and seasonal wetlands dried up during late April and early May. The positive impact of May rains in parts of Wisconsin on brood habitat and ultimate duck production is uncertain."
The number of ducks available in fall depends heavily on each year's production. State and federal biologists monitor spring and summer weather conditions, along with a number of other factors, to determine season dates and bag limits, which are set each year in August.
Last fall, state duck hunters experienced mixed results. Harvest estimates were not available as of this writing, but anecdotal reports provide some idea of how the season went. In the larger inland marshes, such as Horicon and Eldorado, hunters had good success on opening weekend, but action died down until later in the season. On the Mississippi River, hunting was also good early and late in the season, while Lake Winnebago and Lake Michigan hunters had few divers to hunt until the season was nearly over.
Ducks move around quite a bit in fall, even before the southward migration begins. These movements are related to available food and roosting areas. Ducks go where the food is, and they go where they can spend the night and middle of the day undisturbed. If you were in the right place, you had good shooting. If you were not, you might have spent the day watching decoys bob in the breeze, while hunters elsewhere enjoyed a good hunt.
I participated in the 20th Annual Crex Invitational Waterfowl Hunt, held each year in Burnett County on the Monday and Tuesday following opening weekend. Retired DNR research biologist Jim Evrard hosts the hunt, which is limited to about 20 hunters. His records, while confined to one small group of hunters, nonetheless serve as an index of waterfowl hunting conditions and success in the northwestern part of the state. Last fall, the Crex hunt fell on two unseasonably balmy days. Twenty hunters bagged only 32 ducks. In 2001 and 2002, 21 hunters bagged 53 and 52 ducks, respectively. Last year's bag was made up of mallards, ringnecks, green-winged teal, gadwalls, shovelers, redheads and hooded mergansers. Due to the late opening date, we saw no blue-winged teal. The group also bagged three Canada geese.
While hunters traditionally hope for a good flight of "northern mallards," banding records show that the majority of mallards killed in Wisconsin, even those taken late in the season, were hatched in the state and the Great Lakes region. While we should be concerned with habitat conditions in the prairie region of the Dakotas and central Canada, it's what happens right here in Wisconsin that determines to a large extent how good our hunting will be.
Although as of this writing the season framework was still being decided, several pieces of the puzzle were already falling into place. Here's a look at some of the factors biologists use to forecast our fall hunting opportunities.
Each year in late April and early May, air and ground crews survey habitat and count waterfowl on transects throughout the state. Compared with past years' observations, these surveys provide the best idea of what fall hunting will be like. Flying at a maximum altitude of 200 feet, two observers count waterfowl along east-west transects 30 miles long and 1/4-mile wide. One observer also notes the number and type of wetland basins within each transect. Shortly thereafter, ground crews walk a quarter of the transects surveyed by air. Ground crews typically see more ducks than aerial crews, so aerial totals are multiplied by a factor determined by the number of birds counted on the ground.
The survey is timed to count ducks that will actually breed in Wisconsin, not those that are simply migrating through our state. Survey totals and weather conditions are pooled with similar data from other states and
Canadian provinces in the Mississippi Flyway to estimate the fall population, and to determine season dates and bag limits.
As of this writing, the 2004 surveys had just been completed, but data had not yet been compiled and interpreted. The 2003 survey showed an estimated 276,403 mallards, 102,329 blue-winged teal and 317,857 "other" ducks, for a total of 697,589. Although down 26 percent from 2002, the mallard estimate was still 60 percent above the long-term mean. The teal estimate was also down 26 percent from 2002 and 15 percent from the long-term mean. "Other" ducks were down 21 percent from 2002 but 128 percent above the long-term mean. The total breeding duck population estimate was down 24 percent from 2002, but 60 percent above the long-term mean. Totals in 2002 were the highest since the survey began in 1973, so a one-year decline is not alarming.
Over the period of the survey, the mallard population has more than doubled, while the population of blue-winged teal has declined by about 2 percent per year. Blue-winged teal were the most abundant of Wisconsin ducks from 1973 to 1984, but now mallards are the most abundant. In recent years, mallards average 42 percent of all breeding ducks, wood ducks 19 percent, blue-winged teal 16 percent, ringnecks 10 percent, and 11 other species make up 13 percent.
Informal reports from this year's survey suggest that duck numbers are about the same as last year or perhaps a bit lower. DNR wildlife biologist Bruce Bacon, who participated in the northern aerial surveys, says the northeast and parts of the northwest were drier this year than last, while the central part of the north had a lot of water. Bacon expects duck production across the north to be down somewhat from last year.
"Where there was water, we saw lots of ducks," Bacon said. "We saw plenty of teal, but overall, duck numbers appeared to be down some from last year, mainly due to the dry conditions. The number of wetlands we count from the air is a better population indicator than the number of ducks we see."
Wildlife technician Carrie Milestone, who participated in the southern aerial surveys, says she saw an average number of ducks this year compared to recent years. She expects production to be on par with last year.
"There was nothing unusual there," she says. "We didn't see as many type-one wetlands (flooded farm fields and other temporary sheet water), but all the permanent wetlands had good water levels."
DNR wildlife biologist Tom Bahti has participated in the ground-truthing survey for the past 25 years. Together with biologist John Huff, Bahti walks four transects in Manitowoc, Outagamie, Shawano, Brown and Kewaunee counties.
"One transect was a little drier than normal," Bahti says. "That probably changed after the rain that fell in May, however. We did see more teal than in recent years, along with a lot more geese."
DNR research biologist Ron Gatti recently concluded a four-year study looking at the correlation between the type of habitat hen mallards and blue-winged teal choose for nesting on private lands and their nest success rate. Ultimately, Gatti hopes to develop a model that works better than the model used in the prairie states and provinces for estimating Wisconsin's duck production.
From 2000 through 2003, Gatti and other researchers trapped and put radio transmitters on 415 wild hen mallards on private lands in Dodge, Columbia, Fond du Lac, Outagamie, Polk and St. Croix counties. They found 356 nests and followed 80 broods produced by the radio-tagged hens. Hen success at fledging a brood averaged only 17 to 20 percent. The researchers found that mallard hens preferred to nest in grasslands (46 percent of nests) and wetlands (42 percent), even though these habitat types represented only 10 and 23 percent of the study areas, respectively. Pasture, croplands, woodlots and farmsteads made up 68 percent of the study areas, but comprised only 4 percent of nesting sites.
The researchers also put radios on 52 blue-winged teal hens and found that they preferred grasslands (56 percent of nests) and alfalfa (19 percent), but nested in wetlands (25 percent) in proportion to the availability of this habitat type in the study sites. Nest success was 24 percent, but only 48 percent of the teal hens survived the nesting season, compared with 68 percent of mallard hens.
These hen survival rates are lower than those found in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and Canada, where a greater abundance of grassland spreads out nesting ducks and makes it harder for predators to find them.
Gatti also found that most of the hens of both species whose eggs hatched moved their broods to large marshes, often traveling a distance of 10 or more miles to do so.
The majority of Wisconsin's ducks are produced on private lands, Gatti's report says, yet we know little regarding their productivity.
"Past research on duck production in Wisconsin has focused on public lands, which occupy 5 percent of the landscape and offer a different environment than private lands," said Gatti. "Our state duck harvest depends on how well ducks reproduce among the farming operations and rural development on private lands in Wisconsin."
This year, Gatti plans to summarize the data and publish a final report. He will also explore the possibility of continuing the evaluation on CRP grassland for an additional two years to clarify the difference between nest success in CRP and public grasslands. He would also like to secure funding to continue the teal research.
Opportunities for hunting Canada geese in Wisconsin are as good as you'll find anywhere. We enjoy two distinct seasons. The early season runs for the first two weeks of September, exclusive of Labor Day weekend, and targets the growing statewide population of resident giant Canada geese, which nest here in Wisconsin and do not migrate. The regular season begins on or after Sept. 16 and varies in length and bag limits depending on the zone and the annual harvest quota of migrant geese from the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) allotted to Wisconsin by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The early season offers the best harvest opportunity, with daily bag limits of five in Subzone A (roughly the southeastern third of the state) and three in Subzone B (the rest of the state). Successful hunters pattern small flocks of geese, which typically fly from roosting areas in such refuges as municipal parks, subdivision ponds and golf courses to feed in farm fields, where they can be hunted.
Wisconsin hunters bagged 82,033 Canada geese last season. Of those, 8,650 resident geese were taken during the early season. During the regular season, hunters bagged 1,026 geese in the Collins Zone, 26,113 in the Horicon Zone and 46,699 in the Exterior Zone.
Wisconsin's allowable harvest quota for the regular season was 85,500, up considerably from 44,000 in 2002. The regular season framework depends on the status of MVP geese,
which nest in Canada and migrate through Wisconsin and other states beginning in mid-September. Band recoveries indicate MVP geese make up nearly 70 percent of our regular-season harvest. Last year's goose harvest report was still in draft form as of this writing, so breeding pair and annual recruitment data were not available.
Here in Wisconsin, the resident giant Canada goose population continues to increase. Again this year, observers reported seeing more geese than last year statewide. The 2003 spring waterfowl survey estimated the statewide population at 235,448, up 64 percent from 2002. As recently as the mid-1980s, there were too few resident geese in the state to make accurate aerial counts, but now the birds are everywhere.
By the time you read this, hunting season dates, bag limits and an accurate forecast will have been published. You can find them online at www.dnr.state.wi.us, where you will also find the spring surveys and goose harvest reports. Duck harvest data comes from the USFWS and can be found at their Web site at www.migratorybirds.fws.gov/reports. For current information on conditions in the prairies, log onto the DU Web site at www.ducks.org.
The current situation for Wisconsin waterfowl hunters looks pretty good, but Kent Van Horn warns that things might not continue in that vein because of state and federal budget cuts.
"Budget cuts at the state and federal level continue to impact our ability to monitor and manage waterfowl populations and hunting," Van Horn said. "Last winter, Wisconsin and the USFWS did not participate in the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey, which has been conducted for over 50 years. The funds simply are not there to do the work."
Van Horn said the state conducted reduced surveys on Canada geese this summer and very reduced waterfowl banding efforts. If these survey effort reductions continue, he warned, they can have a direct impact on our ability to manage waterfowl populations and provide hunting opportunities. He encouraged waterfowlers to speak up and provide public support for continued funding of waterfowl surveys and banding in Wisconsin and throughout the Mississippi Flyway.
(Editor's note: The author's video, Field to Feast - Waterfowl, contains information on duck and goose hunting, field dressing and several delicious recipes. To order a copy, send $19.95, plus $4.50 shipping, to Outdoor Videos, Dept. GF 10, P.O. Box 433, Grafton, WI 53024. Wisconsin residents should add 5 percent state tax and appropriate county sales tax where required. The video and several wild-game cookbooks are also available online at his Web site at www.dansmalloutdoors.com.
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