October 27, 2021
Come waterfowl season, you will likely notice the effects of a drought gripping the Northern Plains. You may see fewer birds in the marsh, and they may be maddeningly reluctant to pile into your decoys. Maybe you'll hear chatter at the café or the boat launch about this being an "off" year compared with the last several.
None of that will surprise Dr. Johann Walker, director of operations for Ducks Unlimited's Northern Plains office in Bismarck, N.D., and a well-regarded waterfowl biologist.
When we talked in the summer, he couldn't help but look ahead to how drought conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region, the "duck factory" of the Central and Mississippi flyways, might affect the fall flight.
"It's dry. Really dry. Especially in North Dakota," said Walker. "We have widespread extreme or greater drought conditions, and it's really been building since the winter. It's as dry as we've seen it in 25 years, since the last really profound drought back in the 1980s. As a result, we can expect to see fewer and older birds in the migration."
Weather forecasters and statisticians confirm the crippling drought. National drought monitor maps in late summer showed an area the size of Ohio centered on central North Dakota, the deep magenta of the map indicating "exceptional" drought. Farther west and north, "extreme" drought covered most of the Dakotas, the eastern half of Montana, and the southern third of Canada. Drought conditions started with negligible snowfall on the Northern Plains last winter and continued through the spring, with only an inch or two of rain falling on areas that normally would receive 10 times that amount.
Shallow wetlands across the Dakotas, eastern Montana and southern Canada that would normally be teeming with ducklings throughout the hot, sticky summers were dry and dusty in July. The renowned Prairie Pothole Region, an area the size of Texas, has the capability in a non-drought year to pump out millions of ducklings. Conservation efforts here that have preserved wetland and adjacent grass cover for nesting are largely responsible for a bumper crop of ducks over the last 20 years. The last census of ducks, in 2019, pegged the continent's flock at about 38 million birds.
Walker, along with state and flyway waterfowl managers, expect this fall's flight will be smaller in size than in recent years, and ducks will be older on average. That means they'll be harder to fool into decoy spreads.
Compounding the complications of the drought is a lack of knowledge about how ducks may respond. For the second straight year in 2021, biologists weren't able to conduct surveys of breeding grounds across Canada.
This is highly unusual. Ducks are among the most intensively studied of our wildlife, thanks to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual Waterfowl Population Status Report, which has been conducted nearly every year since 1955. But the 2020 and 2021 surveys were canceled because the U.S. pilots that fly them weren't allowed to enter Canada due to COVID restrictions.
The annual population surveys are used by flyway managers to establish bag limits and season structures. Last year's season-setting work was fairly easy, even without the breeding-pair survey. We had a near-record number of ducks entering the breeding season, and water and wetland conditions were fairly normal across the prairie and boreal forest. Waterfowl managers made an assumption—since they couldn't rely on data—that the fall flight would be fairly normal. While some hunters complained about fewer ducks in their particular areas last fall, most indications showed it was a typical year.
But this year, waterfowl managers are worried. They approved liberal packages based on an expectation of a bountiful fall flight before the grip of the drought tightened on the prairie. There's widespread concern that duck hunters this fall may overharvest the drought-impaired population of southbound migrants.
"It's not ideal to have two years without data," said Walker. "We're flying a little bit blind. But we do have North Dakota's breeding-pair survey, which gives us some indication of trends."
Those trends are not good. North Dakota's 2021 survey noted that water indexes were down 80 percent from the previous year and 68 percent below the long-term average. Biologists estimated North Dakota mallard numbers are down 49 percent from 2020, and pintail numbers are off 68 percent.
Assuming U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists can once again enter Canada this coming spring and conduct the annual continental breeding survey, Walker and other managers think the 2022 season could be tightened, with lower bag limits and shorter seasons, in order to give drought-impaired flocks a chance to recover. That assumes drought conditions won't linger across the prairies, as they did the last time we had severe drought conditions in the 1980s.
Keep the Table Set
Back then, in the years before the Conservation Reserve Program and other conservation-minded provisions of the federal Farm Bill, farmers capitalized on drought conditions to drain wetlands and maximize the amount of tillable acreage. Walker doesn't expect that to happen this time around.
"Mainly, because those wetlands are dry now, there's little incentive to drain them," he said. "Second, we have a number of mature conservation programs designed to create alternatives to 'swamp busting.' "
Walker noted that there's a broader recognition of the resilience of the potholes now compared to 25 years ago.
"One of the things that's true of the classic prairie pothole system—the complex of shallow wetlands—is that they thrive on cycles of wet and drought," he explained. "Wetland productivity tends to decline through extended wet periods. Drought is a useful reset, especially if it doesn’t last too long."
He said waterfowlers—no matter where they hunt—need to speak up to ensure that the prairie pothole habitat remains intact so that when the water returns, so will the ducks.
"We have to keep the table set, intact nesting cover and intact wetland basins," Walker stressed. "As long as they're there, when we get wet, ducks will recover regardless of harvest. Drought reminds us that habitat affects duck populations more than anything else."