Waterfowl Conservation at a Crossroads
Three individuals who have dedicated their lives to waterfowl conservation in North America were called together to talk about the complex issues surrounding the continent’s waterfowl. With more than 75 years combined experience brought to the table, these experts in their field share a conversation that demands our attention on how the past and present affect the future of waterfowl populations and conservation.
Waterfowl Conservation: Looking Back
It’s often necessary to take a look back to fully see and understand what history might hold in store for the future. Such is the case with waterfowl conservation.
“Everyone should know about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and the signing thereof in 1916,” says Dr. Tom Moorman, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited (DU), the well-known non-profit organization dedicated to wetland and waterfowl conservation. Dr. Moorman describes the MBTA as “probably the most significant milestone” in North American waterfowl conservation because it protected migratory birds from market hunting practices, which were decimating waterfowl populations at the time. The original Migratory Bird Treaty was signed and enacted in 1916 between the United States and Great Britain (Canada) and was officially implemented in the U.S. with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a little more than 100 years ago.
After that landmark legislation, Dr. Moorman points out, similar steps forward in waterfowl conservation included the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act, or the Duck Stamp Act, in 1934. This provided a continuous source of funds for waterfowl habitat. As of July 2018, about 6 million acres have been acquired using Federal Duck Stamp revenues, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Another key piece of legislation, and one that also addresses funding, is the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937, most often called the Pittman-Robertson (P-R) Act. It helps fund conservation efforts through an excise tax on certain hunting and fishing gear.
Dr. Moorman explains: “These kinds of funding programs were critical to waterfowl conservation in that they allowed agencies to hire staff to do the [conservation] work, in some cases to acquire wildlife management areas (WMAs) that included wetland areas, and in many cases to obtain the finances necessary to support waterfowl research.”
This focus on ensuring funding for waterfowl habitat, projects and scientific research programs continues to this day.
“Most of the last 18 years have been involved with expanding, building and trying to grow funding for waterfowl conservation,” says Nick Wiley, former executive director of Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), now the chief conservation officer with DU. “There’s been a tremendous amount of work done on that front, and it’s tougher to pinpoint those types of milestones. But elements such as Duck Stamp funds and everything that’s been done regarding the Farm Bill, it’s been incremental over the years, and a lot has been happening.”
The same year the Pittman-Robertson Act was approved, another key moment in waterfowl conservation took place: the founding of Ducks Unlimited.
“DU started the first waterfowl census, which subsequently became the long-running waterfowl population surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as the Canadian Fish and Wildlife Service,” says Dr. Moorman. “This information [data], at least in part, serves as the foundation for the establishment of our waterfowl hunting seasons and bag limits.”
The Waterfowl Breeding Habitat and Population Survey, first undertaken in 1955, is now the world’s most comprehensive and longest-running wildlife population survey. Each year, biologists from the USFWS, the CWS and state and provincial agencies conduct physical counts of waterfowl populations by air and ground methods across thousands of miles in the northern U.S. and Canada. According to Dr. Moorman, this has permitted the science behind waterfowl management to grow in leaps and bounds over the years.
He also cites the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) in 1986 as major landmarks for moving waterfowl conservation forward. The Clean Water Act, designed to guard against water pollution, also provided protections for wetland areas. And Dr. Moorman says he believes the NAWMP might be “the most significant advancement in recent times,” in terms of conserving and managing waterfowl populations, and one that will continue to influence conservation decisions going forward.
“It’s vital to understand,” he says, “that the NAWMP has been a living, breathing operational document since its inception. It gets revised and updated periodically. And it brings the waterfowl community together in order to do a sort of status check: like ‘Where are we?’ and ‘What revisions do we need to make in our approach to conservation?’”
Established by the U.S. and Canada, and expanded in 1994 to include Mexico, the NAWMP involves planning and coordination at the international level and implementation of projects at the regional level to help ensure the safety and future of migratory bird populations. The NAWMP has included a number of joint ventures over the years designed to positively affect certain regional areas, as well as a few certain species of waterfowl.
According to Craig LeSchack, a former waterfowl/wetland biologist for Florida’s FWC and currently serving as DU’s director of conservation programs, one of the biggest changes in the years following the NAWMP has been accounting for “the human dimension” in waterfowl management. In addition to basing management decisions on scientific data on waterfowl populations and habitat, managers are also considering in their choices the expectations and desires of hunters, bird watchers and the general public, which he says wasn’t the case 20 years ago.
Wiley backs up that sentiment.
“We’re going through some pretty significant changes [today] in terms of how wetland conservation has benefits far beyond simply producing ducks,”Wiley says. “Major benefits, such as water quality, water conservation and flood protection — all these things matter to a broader segment of the public and go beyond [just] the hunting community.
“It’s a cool thing,” he continues, “because it’s another way that hunters, and the ways in which they contribute to conservation, can have a broader impact.”
FACING MODERN CHALLENGES
But what is modern life without its challenges? Understandably, waterfowl conservation and management are facing several tests.
At the top of the list is habitat change, be at it the hands of agriculture or the ever-growing specter of urban sprawl. This is particularly important in the critical Prairie Pothole Region, which by many estimates supports more than half of North America’s migratory waterfowl. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates, only about 40 to 50 percent of the region’s original prairie pothole wetlands remain undrained today.
With agriculture in particular, it seems to be about striking a balance.
“Agriculture isn’t wrong,” says Dr. Moorman. “People have to eat. But the footprint of agriculture in the prairies is enormous and has undeniably impacted the capacity of the prairies to produce waterfowl. So, if you accept that, it becomes not a matter of ‘let’s beat up on agriculture,’ but ‘let’s see how we can work with agriculture.’ How do we sustain or maintain waterfowl populations and sustain agricultural production?”
Also at the forefront in the minds of today’s waterfowl managers is what Wiley refers to as “a clear and present decline in hunting overall.” He says waterfowlers are slightly more resilient to this decline, but he is still quite concerned, particularly given that the average hunter is 50 years old and male.
“We’re not replacing them as we lose them, and that’s scary,” Wiley says. “We need hunters to come on board. We need them to [be active] in terms of recruitment and retention, and to help keep hunting as strong as possible. And we have to continually be aware of what this means for the future of hunting across the nation.”
The declining hunting population also translates to a corresponding decrease in funding. A good chunk of conservation funding comes from those excise taxes on certain sporting goods and on license sales. With fewer hunters, then, comes less funds for conservation.
Is there a solution to this ever-increasing downward spiral in hunter numbers? Confronting the issue, Wiley suggests, is the first step. And, he adds, with the loss of more than 2 million hunters in the past five years, according to USFWS surveys, that issue is clear.
“We really need to communicate that issue,” Wiley says. “Hunters have been complacent about reaching outside their circle of friends and family to invite other people into the sport. We can be protective about our hunting areas,” he continues, “and we have to get over that and bring more people onboard. I’m not even sure if we do that, it’s really going to stabilize the decline, but we have to try.”
U.S. Conservation Timeline
So, what does the future hold? All wildlife managers spend a large portion of their time looking beyond the “now” to prepare themselves for the difficulties sure to come tomorrow.
Dr. Moorman points to climate change as one of the biggest unknowns going forward long term. Some models call for warmer and wetter prairies, he says, but that’s certainly not guaranteed. And even if those predictions were to hold up, the impacts would be unclear. More water could be good for waterfowl production, he suggests, but it might also affect hunters in other ways. For example, he says, increasingly milder winters might hold ducks farther north longer during the hunting season; perhaps they won’t leave at all if cold weather isn’t pushing them south.
In the end, Dr. Moorman says, everyone will simply have to “continue to have good science and be aware...” and “...adapt and adjust our management styles” to meet whatever conditions arise.
“We try to understand the science as best we can — what the models tell us — and we think of the habitat solutions we’ll have to visualize and work with,” he says. “We try to factor it [the science] into our thinking, and we work to be objective.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
You don’t have to have a master’s degree in waterfowl management in order to play an active role in the conservation. According to Dr. Moorman, support, albeit requiring time and commitment, is not as involved as one might believe. His steps to becoming a part of the solution include:
Share your passion“Conservation in general,” he says, “is a value-based proposition. People protect and conserve that which they love. If you love waterfowl, share that with people.”
Advocate for conservation “Public policy, contacting your legislators, the Farm Bill. All these things add up.”
Go hunting “Every time you go hunting and buy something like shotgun shells, you make a contribution to conservation through P-R funds.”
Join DU and get involved
Give back financially“Money to, say, a college student might be tight. You don’t have to [donate] when you’re new in your professional life,” he says, “but as your capacity to financially contribute increases, your charitable giving can also increase.”
Take someone hunting “Open their eyes. Show them how it connects people to the land. Fire them up,” he says. “We need energy.”