Some years, the fabled Duck Factory nesting grounds in southern Canada and the northern U.S. are wet and teeming with ducks as spring blossoms across the Prairie Pothole region.
In other years, those same wetlands and the ducks they support are dustier and drier, conditions that often cause waterfowl population figures to be noticeably down.
But this year, those same nesting grounds will be silent as wildlife officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service have shut down the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey for the first time in its 65-year history.
In canceling the May pond count and duck population sampling effort due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the move officially grounds biologists who take to the skies and hike across the ground each spring to get a feel for what kind of duck numbers are out there on the prairies.
“Decisions to cancel the May survey and other migratory bird monitoring this spring were based on our priority of protecting the health and safety of the American public, our partners and our employees,” said Ken Richkus, Chief of the USFWS Division of Migratory Bird Management, in a news release.
Since regulations for this fall’s waterfowl hunting seasons—which are already in the approval process—are based on data collected from the 2019 survey, there are no anticipated interruptions for waterfowl hunting seasons this fall.
Nor should this year’s data gap produce any ill effects on next year’s seasons either. As one prominent waterfowl biologist indicated to me in an e-mail a couple of weeks ago, “I believe they know enough about the relatively minimal impacts of harvest to safely do that (make regulation proposals next year) in absence of one year of data, given they have records going back to the late 1950s.”
According to a news release from Delta Waterfowl, that’s already starting to take place with the USFWS at work to develop such a plan to establish season frameworks for the 2021-22 season based on such long-term population information.
“For the general duck seasons, the Service will use the long-term data and models to predict 2020 spring abundances of ducks and habitat conditions in place of the spring 2020 data, which cannot be collected,” states the Delta Waterfowl news release, which quotes a USFWS question-and-answer document about the unique situation unfolding.
“The results from these predictions will be combined with the existing harvest strategies to determine appropriate levels of harvest for the 2021-2022 season. This will ensure the sustainability of ducks and provide hunting opportunities for the American public.”
While the canceling of this spring’s aerial flyovers and ground-based surveys in several Canadian provinces and U.S. states will not impact duck and goose seasons this year, there is still a sense of loss as the annual tradition carried on since 1955 falls victim to the pandemic.
“These surveys are the bedrock of effective harvest management in North America and have helped sustain waterfowl populations and abundant hunting opportunities for over 60 years,” said Karen Waldrop, chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited.
“Although we will miss the anticipation and excitement that comes with the annual release of the May survey results, we don’t expect the cancellation of surveys to impact seasons and bag limits for the majority of species. The combination of healthy, robust waterfowl populations and our long-term experience with these data, gives us faith that the waterfowl management community can project populations with a high level of certainty.”
In addition to the breeding population survey work already shuttered by the virus outbreak, other surveys have been cancelled, too, although none are currently expected to affect upcoming 2020 hunting seasons. Other cancellations caused by the virus include the American Woodcock Singing-ground Survey, the Mid-continent Population Sandhill Crane Survey, and the Arctic Goose Banding Program.
Wildlife officials stress that further disruption in biological survey work and duck and goose banding efforts could be forthcoming this summer if travel restrictions aren’t eased anytime soon.
Stay tuned to Game and Fish as outdoors related news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic crisis continues to unfold.